Despite the crash that took him out, Earnhardt encouraged by strong performance

Dale Earnhardt Jr. races early in the 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 26, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Getty Images)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Returning to action from a concussion that sidelined him for the second half of the 2016 season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was leading Sunday’s Daytona 500 at the halfway point, having passed Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for the top spot on lap 97 of 200.

But both Earnhardt and Johnson were off-cycle on pit stops, and a trip to pit road was imminent. What Earnhardt needed was a caution.

What Earnhardt didn’t need was to be part of the wreck that caused the yellow.

On Lap 105, Earnhardt was trailing a trio of Toyotas into Turn 3 when Kyle Busch spun as his right rear tire deflated. Earnhardt tried to steer around the wreck but clipped the rear of Busch’s Toyota, severely damaging the right front suspension of Earnhardt’s Chevrolet.

Earnhardt took the car to the garage and fell out of the race in 37th place, a disappointing end to a strong week that saw him qualify on the outside of the front row for the Great American Race and finish fifth in his Can-Am Duel on Thursday.

“I don’t know what happened there with the No. 18 (Busch),” Earnhardt said of the crash that knocked him out of the race. “He just got turned around. I tried to get the wheel turned and get down the race track, but I lifted off the gas to miss it, and got on the splitter a little bit, and the car went straight. We jumped him, and got in the wall a little bit.

“Wasn’t too hard of a hit. We thought we could get the car fixed and get back out there and see what we could do with the rest of the day and make up some spots maybe. But there was just too much damage. The radiator is pushed back. The toe is all messed up.  The front suspension is knocked around pretty bad, so the upper A-frame is laid over on the motor. We just can’t drive it like that.”

The wreck, however, didn’t diminish the positive feelings Earnhardt takes away from Daytona.

“I really enjoyed the whole week,” he said. “We had a lot of fun. Everybody was looking forward to getting back to the race track. It meant a lot to me. And I’m just sorry we weren’t able to deliver a better result today for all our fans and everybody that was looking forward to today. We had a great car. At least we went out leading the race.

“Luckily, the hit wasn’t that hard, and we’ll be able to get to Atlanta and compete again. It’s going to be a fun season, and we’ve got pretty high spirits. This was not the result we wanted today, but like I said, it’s been a great week.”

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