FORT WORTH, TX - An oddball combination of mud and fire abruptly ended Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s reign as NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points leader Monday morning during the rain delayed Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
The 2014 Daytona 500 champion and series leader after four of the season's first six races, Earnhardt crashed and burned on lap 13 around TMS' high-banked, 1.5-mile quad-oval. Earnhardt was trailing Aric Almirola's No. 43 Eckrich Ford Fusion when he clipped the grass on the inside apron of the frontstretch. The left-front splitter of Earnhardt's No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet SS dug deeply into the mud, and the resulting blown left-front tire shot the car across the track and careening into the outside wall. That right-side impact caused a flash fire as Junior scrambled to safety.
Earnhardt said he thought he was taking a "decent line" through the track's signature dogleg, as he and Almirola were attempting to pass Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Kyle Larson.
"Just didn't see the grass," said Earnhardt, who started 19th. "Didn't know the grass was down there. With the way the A-post is on these cars you can't really see that good to that angle. I just didn't have a good visual of where the apron and the grass was and got down in there pretty good. You can't run through there the way they have these cars on the ground like that. Just a mistake on my part. Just misjudged it."
The race had just gone green after the opening 10 laps were run under a competition yellow -- a bow to a damp racing surface.
"It was no factor," Earnhardt said."I just made a mistake."
Four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, whose second-place finish to Joey Logano of Penske Racing gave him the points lead, said the opening sequence was just weird.
"When we left pit road at the beginning of the race, we drove by the two jet dryers, casually going by it," said Gordon. "The last one about blew all of us over. I mean, I thought it damaged my car as well. It got my attention. We all started avoiding that one."
Earnhardt had logged four top-three finishes during the season's first six races en route to a nine-point lead (227-218) over Matt Kenseth when the day began. Earnhardt placed 43rd on Monday and exited Texas in sixth, 31 points behind his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon, who leads Kenseth by four points (259-255) heading into the Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway Saturday night.
LOGANO TOTING HOME TEXAS SWAG
Joey Logano's victory in Monday's Duck Commander 500 was his first since August 18 of last season at Michigan International Speedway. At 23 years, 10 months and 14 days, the Connecticut native is the youngest Sprint Cup winner in TMS history.
"It's such a tough race track and we had plenty of time to think about this for the last couple days, so it's a really cool place to win," said Logano. "They give you a ring; I've got guns, I've got a trophy, I've got a (cowboy) hat, I've got a duck call. It's pretty cool."
STEWART RACKS UP LAPS LED
Pole sitter Tony Stewart led 74 laps early, pushing his career TMS total to 801 and past Matt Kenseth (775) on the track's all-time Sprint Cup list dating to April 1997. Both drivers made their 24th career starts at the track in Monday's rain-delayed race. Kenseth failed to lead a lap.
The laps-led were the first that Stewart has paced in 2014. The three-time Sprint Cup champion said after qualifying on the pole Saturday that he is returning to form after his 2013 season was cut short due to a broken right leg suffered in a sprint car crash in August at Southern Iowa Speedway. Stewart finished 10th in Texas, his third top 10 in seven starts this season.