FONTANA, Calif. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. found himself in the rare position this week of being the object of a chorus of criticism from fellow drivers, the media and even fans who normally support him unconditionally.
“I did get ripped up quite a bit,” NASCAR’s most popular driver said Friday at Auto Club Speedway. “I didn’t even want to go on the Web.
“It’s interesting to be on this side of the fence. I’m not on this side too much.”
The complaints arose after Earnhardt ignited a 10-car wreck on a restart late in last Sunday’s Daytona 500, the low point in a race filled with mistakes by the Hendrick Motorsports star.
Junior was trying to pass Brian Vickers with both of them a lap down but near the front of the lead pack. Vickers blocked the move by pushing Earnhardt down below the yellow out-of-bounds line. He hit Earnhardt in the process, and when Earnhardt came back onto the racing surface, he clipped the left-rear corner of Vickers’ car. That sent Vickers shooting across the track and the melee was on.
That’s when the finger pointing began.
Earnhardt called Vickers “a damn idiot” and Vickers returned the compliment, saying that Earnhardt should have been penalized by NASCAR for aggressive driving and had crashed him intentionally.
Other drivers criticized both Earnhardt and Vickers for making such aggressive moves while a lap down.
The Internet and sports talk shows were swarmed all week by fans who wanted NASCAR to suspend, fine or take points from Earnhardt for the incident.
“I definitely could have used better judgment coming back up on the racetrack, but it’s hard to tell,” Earnhardt said after the opening practice for Sunday’s Auto Club 500 at the Southern California track. “I mean, there was rain coming, I was a lap down (and) I had to get my lap back to even have a shot at winning the race.”
He further defended himself saying, “It all happened pretty fast and it was unfortunate how it went down. (But) my statistics at the plate tracks speak for themselves and I don’t really have to defend myself at how good a plate racer I am and what kind of moves I make out on the racetrack.
“I got just as much right to be on that racetrack and do whatever the hell I want to do on it as anybody else out there. And I race just as hard as I choose to race and want to race, and I race people how I want to be raced. I’ve always raced with a lot of respect and I’ll continue to do so in the future.”
Jeff Burton, who was involved in a later crash, confronted Junior after the race, accusing Earnhardt of forcing him into a three-wide situation that pushed him back in the pack and, three laps later, put him in the wrong spot at the wrong time.
“We sat there and debated my ethics and my values and all of those things and ended up agreeing that I’m not a jerk and don’t race like a jerk,” Earnhardt said. “He was just kind of hot under the collar a little bit.”
Burton was long over it by Friday.
“I thought (the Earnhardt-Vickers wreck) was a typical Daytona, Talladega wreck where one guy tries to protect his spot and the other guy needs the spot and you misjudge by 6 inches and there’s a wreck,” Burton said.
Earnhardt said he called Vickers early this week to make sure there were no hard feelings.
“He said it was intentional on the television and I wanted to make sure he knew it wasn’t intentional, that I didn’t have a problem with him and that I wouldn’t wreck him intentionally,” Earnhardt said. “Just trying to clear that up with him. Me and Vickers have actually been friends for quite a while.”
Earnhardt qualified 35th on Friday, while Vickers won the pole for Sunday’s race then had to give it up because of an engine change on his No. 83 Toyota. Before the engine change was announced, Vickers said he said he still has mixed feelings about what happened at Daytona.
“Junior did call me this week, which was much appreciated,” he said. “Without giving too much detail of the conversation, he called to say that he apologized and didn’t mean to do it. I told him then, ‘I don’t know what to say.’ We ended up finishing almost last because of what happened.
“Of course, I’m upset about it. I mean I’m not happy unless I won the race, much less wreck. But I told him I do appreciate the call.”
Vickers said he was pleasantly surprised that he wasn’t automatically considered the villain in the crash because of Earnhardt’s popularity.
“In a way, I’ll be honest with you, I almost have to apologize to the fans because I just assumed that, obviously Junior being the most popular driver, that this was just going to be my fault no matter what happened,” Vickers said. “But the fans as a whole have been very supportive and really judged the situation based on the actions and not on anyone’s popularity.’
“I don’t really read a lot of racing news, but it’s been sent to me a lot this week. I saw polls where 90 percent of the fans said it was his fault and 60 percent of them claimed to be his fans, which has really been a shift in popular opinion from what I’ve seen in the past.”
Earnhardt said he finds it a little ironic that he is being called a bad guy on this one.
“I’ve always been too nice,” he said. “And that was the Daytona 500 and I felt like I had the car to win. I felt that way 100 percent. I wanted to go out there and win the race and I felt like if I could get my lap back, I could get it done.
“I was racing everybody as smart as I could, but I was racing as hard as I could. I’m still a good guy, but when I feel like I’ve got a real good opportunity to win, and I’ve got to make up a little ground, you’ve got to race hard. And the Daytona 500 is a little different situation.”