Going still rough for Earnhardt

Times Staff Writer

New team, new number, new track name, but the same old luck for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Newly renamed Auto Club Speedway of Southern California was just as miserable for Earnhardt as it was when it was called California Speedway.

A rose by any other name . . .

Earnhardt came into Sunday's Auto Club 500 hoping to break away from the past with a new number, new sponsor and new team. Out were No. 8, Budweiser and Dale Earnhardt Inc., in were 88, AMP Energy Drink and Hendrick Motorsports.

But Earnhardt, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' most popular driver, was involved in a four-car crash on Lap 21 that brought out a red flag for 67 minutes under overcast Fontana skies.

Worse, the crash started when Earnhardt was running a respectable 13th. Worse than that, his involvement in the crash was because of one of his new teammates, Casey Mears, who was running sixth.

When the race was stopped for a second time Sunday night, after 87 laps, Earnhardt was 40th among the 43 cars who took the green flag. He spent most of the race circling the two-mile oval for nothing more than testing purposes in the first race on an intermediate track with the so-called Car of Tomorrow.

Mears, in his second season driving for owner Rick Hendrick, lost control of his Chevrolet after his left-side tires ran over a "weeper," a wet spot on the track where water seeped through seams or cracks in the pavement and caused hydroplaning by the grooveless racing slick tires.

The Bakersfield native, nephew of IndyCar legend Rick Mears and driver Roger Mears, hit the outside wall in Turn 2 and slid across the track. Earnhardt then hit Mears and destroyed most of the right-side bodywork of the No. 88 car.

Mears' ride wasn't over. He was knocked back up along the wall where Sam Hornish Jr. -- nothing more than a passenger after contact with Reed Sorenson -- drove under the rear of Mears and flipped him upside down before the car came to a rest on its side.

Hornish's Dodge then caught fire. No one was seriously injured, and workers then tried to repair the track to eliminate the weeping problem while racing stopped for more than an hour.

Earnhardt went to the garage to repair his car. He lost 39 laps, and was 40 down when the race was stopped for a second red flag because of rain.

Earnhardt criticized NASCAR for starting the race, though President Mike Helton reportedly said there were no complaints about the weeping when drivers were questioned during pace laps.

"I think we were too excited, we got going a little too soon," Earnhardt said. "The track's dirty, guys are sliding all over the place. The track's not ready today, we rushed into this. It was a bad move."

Earnhardt finished ninth at last week's Daytona 500, the highest finisher among the four Hendrick cars, but was unable to build on any momentum after his debut with his new team.

While with DEI, Earnhardt once suggested a way to improve California Speedway was to blow it up. It's unlikely his opinion was changed Sunday.

Earnhardt has six top-10 finishes at Fontana, including a victory in 1998, the speedway's second NASCAR race. He finished third the following year.

But in 15 races on the track, Earnhardt finished 32nd or worse six times, excluding this weekend's result.

Five times he didn't even finish, including 2002 when he suffered the hardest crash of his career.

Meanwhile, all he had to do was look at the scoring pylon to check out his other two teammates to know that this track has it in for him. Jimmie Johnson was in first place, and Jeff Gordon was in sixth with the race's most dominant car.

Yep, that's Junior's luck.

--

martin.henderson@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°