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Published: Saturday, 2/21/2009

Earnhardt endures week of criticism

ASSOCIATED PRESS
A NASCAR official holds Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the pit area for a one-lap penalty during the Daytona 500. He made several mistakes during the race, including starting a 10-car accident. A NASCAR official holds Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the pit area for a one-lap penalty during the Daytona 500. He made several mistakes during the race, including starting a 10-car accident.
REINHOLD MATAY / AP Enlarge

FONTANA, Calif. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. found himself early this week in the rare position 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 yesterday 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," Earnhardt added. "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 an idiot, and Vickers returned the compliment, saying 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 judgement coming back up on the racetrack, but it's hard to tell," Earnhardt said. "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."

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."

Earnhardt said he called Vickers early this week to make sure there were no hard feelings.

FONTANA, Calif. - Vickers won the sixth pole of his career yesterday, touring the two-mile Auto Club Speedway oval at 183.429 mph. Jimmie Johnson was second at 183.164 mph. Jamie McMurray was third at 182.653, followed by Kurt Busch at 182.556, Greg Biffle at 182.302, Jeff Gordon at 182.209, David Reutimann at 182.089, and AJ Allmendinger at 182.048.



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