Getting run into by teammate Jimmie Johnson wasn’t how Dale Earnhardt Jr. envisioned beginning his retirement tour, but that’s the situation Earnhardt found himself in during Sunday’s NASCAR race at Richmond International Raceway.
Earnhardt was running the upper groove around the three-quarter mile track with 43 laps remaining in the Toyota Owners 400, when Johnson’s No. 48 car abruptly body-slammed the No. 88 car as Earnhardt sped off Turn 2. The contact was significant and pushed Earnhardt into the wall, causing further damage.
Johnson was on newer tires and attempting to pass Earnhardt, who was on much older tires due to an aggressive pit strategy employed by crew chief Greg Ives. Earnhardt said spotter T.J. Majors had alerted him that Johnson was passing.
“(Johnson) said he didn’t see us,” Earnhardt said. “He had pitted and got tires and we were out there running around the top and weren’t ready to pit yet. He said he didn’t get any notice that he had a car outside.
“It was an explosion.”
Johnson took full responsibility for the accident, immediately radioing to his No. 48 team that he didn’t know Earnhardt was to his outside and then apologizing post-race. The Hendrick Motorsports teammates spoke on pit road after the race concluded to review the collision and there were no hard feelings between the two. Both drivers later made light of the run-in on social media.
Earnhardt was later involved in another incident when a punctured tire caused him to spin. He finished 30th, with Johnson able to continue on despite the damage to place 11th.
“I just have to try to figure out if I just didn’t hear it being told to me or if it wasn’t told to me,” Johnson said. “I just feel terrible, obviously. Man, I’m surprised our cars even kept rolling after that because I just body-slammed him into the wall and I could have easily not heard the clear or something else happened.
“I don’t know, but that’s the last thing you want to have happen with a teammate.”
Instead, Richmond represented a continuation of what has been frustrating season where the No. 88 Chevrolet has regularly lacked competitiveness, and Earnhardt often inflicted by bad luck when he’s had a car possessing speed. On Sunday, Earnhardt spent much of the race outside the top 15, prompting Ives’ pit strategy gamble.
Earnhardt now has finished 30th or worse in five of nine races this season, and ranks 24th in the points standings. He trails Ricky Stenhouse Jr. by 60 points for the final provisional playoff berth.
“Just terrible luck,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t know what to do. But, we were probably going to finish anywhere around 10th to 15th today -- not all that awesome -- but we just had such terrible luck.”