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Earnhardt Jr. wrecks pole-sitting car; must start in back for Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH — Dale Earnhardt Jr. wrecked his pole-winning car in practice Wednesday and will have to start at the back of the pack for the Daytona 500 on Sunday.

Earnhardt was pushing Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson in practice when Johnson had to slow down for slower-moving traffic. Earnhardt hit Johnson's back bumper and turned him sideways.

A second pack led by Martin Truex closed quickly on Earnhardt's bumper, causing the No. 88 Chevrolet to spin across the track and into the inside wall.

Johnson said he had to slow suddenly when a pack of three cars ahead of them — driven by Robby Gordon, Michael Waltrip and David Gilliland — drifted high from the bottom of the track toward the top.

The accident was a function of the two-car drafting that has become the fastest way around Daytona International Speedway this year. Working together, two cars are so much faster than a single car or a larger pack that Earnhardt says others have to watch the closing speed of the cars coming up behind them.

"You've got to pay attention out there, man," Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt will forfeit the top starting spot in his 150-mile qualifying race today, and in Sunday's season opener.

It is the third car Earnhardt has used during Speedweeks. He also wrecked one in Saturday's exhibition Budweiser Shootout.

The team will repair the Shootout car, and it will become Earnhardt's backup car for Sunday.

PLATE CHANGES: NASCAR reduced the size of the restrictor plate in an attempt to cut speeds before the 500.

The move is one of many NASCAR has made since the Bud Shootout saw speeds top 206 mph at one point.

The reduction of the restrictor plate is a 64th of an inch and could cut about 10 horsepower from the engines.

THE FIX IS NOT IN: ESPN's motorsports division distanced itself from commentator Tony Kornheiser's suggestion that NASCAR is fixed because Earnhardt won the pole for the 500.

"I can tell you for sure that ESPN doesn't agree with his opinion," said Rich Feinberg, the network's vice president of motorsports. "But that's the nature of commentary, and not all the time are we going to get a rosy picture when people are offering their opinions."

Three-time 500 champion Dale Jarrett was angered by the insinuation from Kornheiser, who co-hosts Pardon the Interruption on ESPN. Jarrett insisted it's far too difficult for NASCAR.

"To set something up, there's too many people that would have to be involved," said Jarrett, an ESPN analyst. "You couldn't keep something like that quiet. It's unfair to the competitors and to the people who work their tails off to put a quality product out there. We have a very good sport with a lot of integrity … and to have it questioned is unfortunate."

NEXT GENERATION: Hendrick Motorsports signed 15-year-old Chase Elliott to a driver development deal. Elliott is the son of 1988 NASCAR champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner Bill Elliott. He will receive support as he drives Chevrolets for Bill Elliott Racing until he turns 18 and is eligible to run in NASCAR national series events.

Earnhardt Jr. wrecks pole-sitting car; must start in back for Daytona 500 02/16/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 16, 2011 8:09pm]

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