“It’s really heartbreaking to do so well and then have something like that go wrong."|
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
By Denise N. Maloof, SI.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For all the millions lavished on his cars during the offseason, it was Joe Public-type equipment that failed Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Sunday.
It wasn't contact or “the big one” crash.
A faulty alternator cost him the lead.
“It’s a $40 part,” car chief Tony Eury Jr. said as rain drops puddled outside the No. 8 hauler. “That’s the way it is.”
With three SpeedWeeks wins behind him, Earnhardt Jr. was the lock-tight favorite for Sunday’s 45th annual Daytona 500. He met the hype early, running in the top three with Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate and eventual winner Michael Waltrip.
But trouble surfaced at the end of the day’s first red-flag delay -- a one-hour, eight-minute pause on lap 63. Earnhardt had led when the field was parked under tarpaulins, and once drivers returned to their cars, the No. 8’s engine wouldn’t start.
A fluke, thought Eury Jr.
Once the car fired and green-flag conditions returned, he requested feedback.
“We told him to check his volt meter, and his volt meter was low,” Eury. Jr. said. “It was reading low, and he just kept telling us.”
By then, Earnhardt was second, trailing Waltrip and watching his power source erode. Suddenly, an increasingly panicked voice relayed the news -- dead battery -- and Earnhardt’s Chevrolet was in danger of being swallowed by that of defending Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart.
“It finally went all the way to the peg, so we knew it was going to quit,” Eury Jr. said. “He just started to get run over, so we told him to come in, we’d change it.”
Earnhardt moved aside on lap 85, tumbling to 27th and then 35th before pitting. He lost two laps while his crew replaced the dead battery -- a stop well over a minute long -- but the problem turned out to be more complicated.
“The alternator’s what went out,” Eury Jr. said. “It don’t keep the battery charged. It just saps the battery, drains it. You really can’t change the alternator. You’d lose five or six laps, so the easiest thing to do is just keep slapping batteries in it and keep going. But it takes time to do that.”
“Damn it,” Earnhardt said. “It’s really heartbreaking to do so well and then have something like that go wrong.”
Being sandwiched two laps down didn’t seem to matter. Earnhardt gradually worked back to the front, and he was gunning to regain one lap from then-leader Jimmie Johnson when the day’s third of five caution periods occurred. Pole-sitter Jeff Green and Jimmy Spencer tangled in Turn 4, and the yellow flag negated Earnhardt’s effort.
After the fourth caution -- the track had to be cleared of debris from Mike Skinner’s crippled car -– Earnhardt blasted past Johnson and the lapped car of Christian Fittipaldi on the lap 106 restart. Waltrip, who was second at the time, jumped behind Earnhardt into the lead.
“I just knew Dale Jr. wanted his lap back and would be ready,” Waltrip said. “I also knew that Christian hadn’t raced here much and might not be [ready].”
“Even when I was a couple laps down, I could go right to the front,” Earnhardt said. “My car was really, really good.”
Only two laps were completed before the fifth and final caution, a lap 106 spin by Ward Burton. The red flag flew a second time on lap 109 for rain, and steady showers washed away the final 91 laps.
Had the race resumed and Earnhardt gotten back on the lead lap, Eury Jr. said three freshly-charged batteries awaited in the No. 8 pit.
But only philosophy remained.
“Look at my dad,” Earnhardt said of his late father. “It took him 20 times to win this thing. Hopefully we’re not gonna have to wait that long, but it just seems like weird things happen in this race.”