DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. entered the Daytona 500 as the favorite, considering he appeared he could pilot his car at will in the races leading up to Sunday's main event.
But he had far from a dominant car, leading a meager 15 laps before falling out of the top 10 in the first half of the race at Daytona International Speedway. He appeared to threaten to get into the top five before spinning on his own on the frontstretch with 30 laps remaining.
Instead of leaving a winner, he tied his worst finish in the event by placing 36th.
"It's fast when it don't have to handle good," Earnhardt said. "But today it needed to handle and we weren't handling."
That doesn't mean Earnhardt had no chance to win. He just didn't have a car that he knew if he didn't mess up, should be the one to beat. The Joe Gibbs Racing cars and and their fellow Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. were dominant all day.
As Earnhardt tried to catch them, though, as he put it: "I got loose and just busted my tail."
It was an unexpected and premature ending for Earnhardt, who pulled off a stellar move to win his Daytona 500 qualifying race Thursday night. He put the entire field on notice that he would be the man to beat with that move.
But instead of manhandling the car Sunday, the car appeared to manhandle Earnhardt.
"The balance of the car was a big curveball today," Earnhardt said. "We really didn't anticipate the balance being that big of a deal. You saw us struggling all day long trying to fix the handle of the car.
"We were just pushing real bad, just couldn't pass, couldn't be on offense. We started getting it a little bit better there, but just got it too loose."
Of all the things that gave Earnhardt trouble, it appeared the wind was a major factor. He could feel the air, and not in a good way.
"If the wind is blowing one way, the car is going to handle one way at one end of the track and handle a different way at the other end," Earnhardt said. "We were really tight. The wind was in the door all the way through Turn 4 and we were freeing the car up real big. I just got it out of shape there and lost it."
Maybe seeing Earnhardt lose it will be a little consolation to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Chase Elliott. The 20-year-old rookie sat on the pole and he, too, just lost it. His accident came 19 laps into the race and after spending 40 laps in the garage, he was able to return -- and not lose a lap the rest of the way.
Elliott will remember his first Daytona 500, when he started on the pole and led the first three laps before his day turned sour.
"It had been such a fun week and you hate to end the race before it even got started," Elliott said. "I'm just disappointed for everybody. We will just have to look past it."
Xfinity Series: JR Motorsports starts off strong
It was a much better day Saturday for Earnhardt and Elliott. As much as the Joe Gibbs Racing team had a day where three of its drivers could have won in the final laps Sunday, so did the JR Motorsports drivers in the Xfinity race.
"This sport is so cutthroat and so challenging," said Earnhardt, who co-owns JR Motorsports. "These guys work real hard to stay competitive. So you get a real appreciation, satisfaction.
"When you win as a driver, it's just pure excitement and elation. When you win as an owner, it's total satisfaction. A lot of pride goes into that."
Kahne actually tried to push Joey Logano past Sadler and Elliott in an attempt to get the win. Elliott slid up in front of Logano and with Logano pushing Elliott, they broke away to make it a two-driver race to the finish.
It appeared they were close to breaking the Xfinity no-push-draft rule, but Logano said it is hard for NASCAR to officiate that rule on the final lap.
"The way it's explained to me is basically everyone on the last lap's pushing," Logano said. "Are they going to black flag the whole field? You know what I mean? That's where it becomes very challenging.
"Any time you have cars that are capable of doing something pretty amazing, as far as being able to push, tandem, you tell the drivers not to, that makes that rule kind of tough."
Camping World Truck Series: Sauter in the Chase
Johnny Sauter's win in the Camping World Truck Series race made him the first series regular likely locked into its Chase.
Only eight drivers make the truck Chase, but Sauter should be one of the top eight drivers with wins in the unlikely circumstance that more than eight series regulars win.
Sauter knows only one speed, so it's doubtful that knowing he's in the Chase will make much of a difference.
"We're going to drive hard," said Sauter, who won in his first race with GMS Racing. "The goal is to win every week. This probably makes things feel a little bit more comfortable, I guess, knowing that if there is an opportunity to maybe try some technology that you normally wouldn't do if you hadn't won a race.
"But I'm going to drive as hard as I can week in and week out. I want to win 10 races this year."