DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- He finished where he started, which on the surface isn't unusual at Daytona for Dale Earnhardt. Here's what is unusual:
He didn't finish in the top 20, and he wasn't the best Earnhardt.
"It's just another Daytona 500," Earnhardt, the 1998 Daytona 500 champion, said Sunday he finished an uncharacteristic 21st in the 42nd running at Daytona International Speedway. "We'll get 'em next year."
Which is pretty much what Earnhardt, who finished eight positions behind his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has said after most 500s in the last decade. Still, Sunday's was a far different experience for the 48-year-old, seven-time Winston Cup champion.
He never led, and never challenged for the lead.
He did run in a lead five- to 15-car draft much of the race, but during a late-race flurry of cautions and drafting in which five Fords pushed to the front, the Chevrolet-driving Earnhardt lost position. His finish was just his second out of the top 10 since 1987, and he had finished fifth or better six times in the span.
The result ended a disappointing week for Earnhardt. He won the IROC series race for a sixth time in the 1990s on Friday, but struggled in Winston Cup. He had finished 11th in a qualifying race Thursday, complaining loudly throughout that NASCAR needed to allow Chevys to make alterations to its new Monte Carlo or risk Ford domination yesterday.
"We were definitely at a disadvantage, but it's just one of them deals," Earnhardt said.
Specifically, Earnhardt and team owner Richard Childress complained that new shocks and springs rules made it too difficult for cars of any make to pass.
"They took the competition out of it," Earnhardt said.
"What can I say?" Childress said. "Everything I've said, I've said all week. If NASCAR can't see it, it's up to them. We were racing for fifth like it was, and then we got shuffled back."
If Earnhardt's words for NASCAR were unkind, his words for his son after his first Daytona 500 weren't much kinder. Father and son raced nose to tail for much of the second half of the race, and Earnhardt Jr. worried afterward his father wasn't real pleased with what he saw. He was right.
"He didn't work at all with nobody," the elder Earnhardt said. "He wanted to pass. That's all he wanted to do. That's why he finished where he did.
"I didn't care who was out there. I was trying to win the race. I wasn't worried about who was out there. There were a lot of guys out there."
Earnhardt Jr., after finishing well ahead of his father, didn't see it quite that way, and said there were times his father could have helped him more in the draft.
"I thought he would be the first one to help me, but he was the last person who wanted to stay behind me," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We did more racing than I wanted to. I wanted to stay with him and stay behind him. Everybody got to racing behind me, and it was either pass or be passed."
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org