Dale Earnhardt Jr. came into today’s Coke Zero 400—his final race at Daytona International Speedway—as a favorite to win, starting from pole position. Then he hit the wall at Turn 1, damaging the right side of his car extensively. Now he’s got to fight his way back up from two laps down.
It’s unclear why Earnhardt hit the wall, but he said that he felt like he had a right-rear tire going down before doing so. Weirdly, his right-rear tire was fine when he came into the pits, although his right-front tire had gone flat in the crash.
Commentators speculated that Paul Menard might have made contact with Earnhardt before Earnhardt’s car hit the wall, but it’s hard to tell from the television footage.
Earnhardt then had to drag his damaged car all around the track until he could get to the pits, further damaging his car. His crew was able to repair it, but Earnhardt lost quite a lot of time and rejoined the race a couple of laps down.
Winning at Daytona obviously means a lot to Dale Jr., as it’s the place that took Dale Sr.’s life, and the summer Daytona race in particular is where Dale Jr. won the very first race immediately following his father’s last crash in 2001.
Of course, because Daytona is going to be crash-heavy Daytona, the next major incident was a “big one,” starting off with Kyle Busch losing it in the mid pack of the field:
The crash took Joey Logano and Austin Dillon out of the race.
Kyle Larson got the free pass after the crash, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the only car that sits only one lap down now—meaning that he’s still got a chance.
UPDATE [8:50 p.m.]: Dale’s already back on the lead lap after yet another caution here at Daytona. Brendan Gaughan made contact with Kurt Busch, pushing Gaughan back up into the wall. Dale Jr. received the free pass back onto the lead lap following the incident, so it’s not over yet.