Earnhardt's ninth-place finish in 500 shows he's human after all

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. was limping noticeably on his right leg as he walked through the garage following Sunday's Daytona 500.

"New gas pedal," he said.

Earnhardt limped through the race, too.

The man who Tony Stewart called maybe the best restrictor-plate driver in the Sprint Cup Series, perhaps better than Earnhardt's dad who -- won more races at Daytona International Speedway than anybody -- seemingly couldn't do anything right on Sunday.

If he went high, it was wrong.

If he went low, it was wrong.

That was true particularly over the final three laps when Earnhardt fell from fifth to 10th before finishing ninth in his debut for Hendrick Motorsports.

"We were just kind of in a box there at the end," Earnhardt said. "We couldn't make any more moves than we were making, and the ones I was making wasn't doing any good.

"I was getting kind of frustrated."

Speedweeks didn't start out that way for NASCAR's most popular driver. He won the Budweiser Shootout, his first win of any kind in almost two years. He followed that with a win in the first of Thursday's two 150-mile qualifying races to put him in position to become the first driver to win all three events with a victory in the 500.

But for most of Sunday, Earnhardt cruised around the 2.5-mile track in fourth place. He wasn't able to take the lead until Lap 162 of the 200-mile race, and he did that by staying out when the Toyotas of Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart pitted ahead of him under caution.

Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. wanted Earnhardt to pit for four tires 15 laps later, but he couldn't get through what he called the radio "jabber" between Earnhardt and his spotter over a poor radio connection.

"That's what you get for waiting till the last second," Earnhardt radioed Eury.

Actually, Earnhardt didn't want to pit. Track conditions had cooled and tire wear wasn't a problem.

Track position was.

"Yeah, I would have loved to have four tires, but would we have been able to come back up through there?" Earnhardt said. "We hadn't been great all night. We'd been OK and we were hanging on to fifth place most of the day.

"But I don't think we could have driven by [Busch and Stewart] and the guys that were outrunning us all day. I needed to be out front."

That didn't mean Earnhardt was giving up. He truly believes there's nobody better in the draft, and felt that could be the difference down the stretch.

"I'll do what I've got to do to win," he told his spotter under caution with 14 laps remaining. "I'll stay in the top lane, but I don't think it will work."

That was the first indication Earnhardt knew it would be tough to win, but again he wasn't conceding.

"I'm probably going to see some three-wide action here in a second," he radioed his spotter. "Be on your toes."

That was with eight laps remaining. Earnhardt was eighth, ahead of Kasey Kahne in a car bearing the Budweiser name that was synonymous with Earnhardt at his father's company before this season.

"Felt good," Earnhardt said of the push he got from Kahne to get him to fifth before caution fell again two laps later. "Kasey doesn't have that much success on these plate tracks. They've obviously got a pretty good package now. That was pretty fun. We just didn't have enough."

The fact that he didn't have anybody from HMS to help made the situation more difficult. Jeff Gordon had a suspension failure and failed to finish after running in the top three most of the day.

We just got out of time with the lines running. He made a choice to go with Kyle there at the end and it didn't work.

-- Tony Eury Jr.

Jimmie Johnson spun out on Lap 176 after a tap from rookie Sam Hornish Jr. and limped home to 27th.

Casey Mears finished 35th after a crash with six laps remaining while running third behind Jeff Burton and Busch.

That left Earnhardt to win on his own, unlike Ryan Newman, who picked up his first Daytona 500 win with a late push from Penske Racing teammate Kurt Busch.

"I can't really remember the last few laps," Earnhardt said. "I was kind of stuck. The guys on the outside made great moves to get there. Ryan and those guys did exactly what they needed to do to win. They made some good choices at the end and that is the difference between where we finished and they finished."

But Earnhardt reminded the best car didn't win. He said Kyle Busch, who led a race-high 86 laps, was the class of the field. That's why he went with him on the final restart.

"We just got out of time with the lines running," Eury said. "He made a choice to go with Kyle there at the end and it didn't work."

That is uncharacteristic for Earnhardt, who won the 2004 Daytona 500 and has won 11 other times here.

"I made the wrong choices and what I did with the runs I got," Earnhardt said. "It had nothing to do with the help. If you get in the right line the help goes with you."

So Earnhardt isn't Superman in his new HMS ride. He's not going to win all 36 races as his fans, known as Junior Nation, hoped.

That doesn't mean he's unhappy with the week or Sunday's finish -- or the prospects for a great season.

"I was really satisfied with how the week went," Earnhardt said. "It could have been a whole lot different. It could have been disastrous. It could have been a struggle. We could have had a lot of mishaps and misfortunes.

"We were lucky and fortunate and had some success. We've got something good to build on. We had some success. We got something good to build on. I think the cars are going to be great this season."

He then limped into darkness.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.