Earnhardt Jr. Recalls Atlanta Brush With Destiny, Edwards
By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. is pondering the key moments in his racing career, one that often comes to mind is Lap 312 of the fall race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2004.
At that point in that race, Earnhardt was in the driver’s seat, so to speak, as far as the season championship was concerned. He’d been on a roll, having already won five races.
His main rival in the then-new Chase, eventual winner Kurt Busch, had dropped out of the race on Lap 51 with an engine failure that had left him with 42nd-place points.
Earnhardt had the No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet in the lead pack and was poised to finish the race with the points lead.
But as he entered Turn Three on that fateful lap, he collided with then-rookie Carl Edwards. Instead of finishing second or third, he wound up 33rd.
His best shot ever at a championship was lost, and that one incident likely had an impact on his career decisions in the years since.
“When you look back over your career, that definitely sticks out in the top five,” he said, adding that if he’d come through that one corner unscathed it would have led to “a whole new outcome for our team and the championship that year, not only that year but in the future.”
His uncle and crew chief, Tony Eury Sr., agrees that a lot changed that fall afternoon in Atlanta.
“That was the closest we ever came,” Eury said. “Everybody thought we were going to be the ones to beat. We had everything going our way. It seemed like we had the luck and everything else, and that one deal killed it all.”
Eury said that if the team had made it through Atlanta, he would have played things differently in the remaining races, especially in the season finale at Homestead, where they finished 23rd after winning at Phoenix and finishing 11th at Darlington.
“We probably would have done things a little different at Homestead.” Eury said. “Things would be a lot different for sure.”
Earnhardt said his feelings about the incident have changed over time, but they were raw for a while.
“I was upset at Carl. He was young, just getting started in the Cup Series,” he said. “But I’d done the same thing to Ryan Newman two times off of Turn 2.”
Newman hasn’t forgotten that day either.
“I came up in front of (Earnhardt), and he hit me from behind and spun me around, and I went into the fence,” Newman said. “I was running fifth at the time, and he drove into the back of me and ended my day.
“I was blocking him, but he had plenty of opportunity to go low and pass me but he decided not to.”
Newman said there’s not much that can be done about things once they happen.
“You think back to things you would have done different, but you don’t dwell on them,” he said.
Unfortunately for Edwards, he appears to have dwelled on that 2004 day.
“That was bad. I was telling somebody about that exact thing two days ago,” he said, grimacing initially when asked about the Atlanta incident during an interview at Bristol Motor Speedway. “I thought that if I had that do over again, I would have let him ease right in and go on.
“But in my mind then, I was caught up in the moment, in the battle. I knew he was thinking, ‘This rookie will give me room.’
“I’m thinking, ‘I’m racing for my sponsor, for a job and all that stuff.’
“When it happened I didn’t realize…. I didn’t realize until about a year later how important those chances to win a championship are. I finished third in that race. If I had finished fourth I don’t think it would have mattered.
“Seeing the type of person [Earnhardt] is and learning more about how all this works, I wish I could have lifted, I wish I could go back and fix it.”
He said he told Earnhardt that during the 2005 NASCAR banquet in New York.
Eury Sr. summed it up best, saying that even though the wreck had a far-reaching impact, in the end it was just one of those racing deals that of ten occur.
“They were racing hard,” Eury said. “Carl was young. That’s racing. It happens.”
– Rick Minter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments