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FORT WORTH, Texas -- Just after the green flag flew to begin the rain-delayed Duck Commander 500 on Monday, Sprint Cup points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove into the grass, smacked a wall and had to climb out of his car because it was on fire, bringing an early end to the race for the sport's most popular driver.
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car caught fire after he accidentally drove into the infield grass and then hit a wall early in Monday's Duck Commander 500.|
Earnhardt said he couldn't see very well at the bottom of the frontstretch and ended up with his left-side tires in the rain-soaked infield grass on Lap 13, causing a tire to blow. His No. 88 Chevrolet then shot up into the wall in Turn 1 and caught fire.
"You can't run through there the way they have these cars on the ground like that," Earnhardt said. "Just a mistake on my part. I just didn't know I was that close to the grass, and made a mistake. It tears a car up pretty good when you run through the grass."
The accident guaranteed a 43rd-place finish for Earnhardt. He hadn't finished last in the field since the 2007 fall race at Phoenix, a span of 222 races. The new rules in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship puts increased emphasis on wins, but Earnhardt already has four top-three finishes this season, including a win at Daytona.
Jimmie Johnson had damage on the windshield and front left of his No. 48 car from mud and debris after the crash by his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. He was three laps down by time he got back in the race after his team worked on the car. Johnson also had an issue with a right-side tire.
Prior to Earnhardt's wreck, the jet dryers used to dry the track caused an incident during the opening 10 laps, which were run under caution. As the drivers came around to get a feel for the surface, the truck-mounted blowers caused the hoods on some cars -- including those of Brad Keselowski and Danica Patrick -- to pop open.
"That's a lot of force blowing up in there," Rodney Childers, the crew chief for Kevin Harvick, said on TV before the green flag. "It blows up the hood. The roof flaps pop up. And when they pop up, the tethers come out."
NASCAR gave each driver the opportunity to pit and have all the hinges checked without losing starting position.
The race began after 10 caution laps, and the teams will be given a chance to assess things with two more competition cautions, one coming after 25 green laps and another 35 laps after that point. It took only three green-flag laps for another caution to come out.
Kevin Harvick completed only 28 laps before a blown engine knocked him out of the race.
"Something happened with the engine right after that restart," Harvick said. "It's frustrating. I don't know what else I can say. I didn't get any indication that anything was going wrong."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.