Earnhardt-Vickers tangle costs Busch

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Kyle Busch was smiling as he chatted on his cell phone during the long walk from the infield care center to his hauler with cars still circling Daytona International Speedway. He kept the smile despite boos and a few finger gestures from fans on the catwalk above the Sprint Cup garage.

Inside he was seething.

And he should have been.

The best car in Sunday's Daytona 500 didn't win because arguably today's best driver in restrictor-plate racing made a mistake.

How much of one is a matter of opinion.

But it was a mistake.

"It's unfortunate that a guy that's messed up his whole day on pit road and screwed up that he has to make our day worse," Busch said. "It wasn't our problem that he was a lap down and fighting with another lapped car [Brian Vickers]. I don't even know what they were fighting for because the outside line was coming.

"Those cars just should have sat there and waited and gotten back in line."

Busch was referring to Dale Earnhardt Jr. NASCAR's most popular driver was a lap down on the restart with 76 laps to go because he was penalized for stopping outside of his pit box.

It was his second mistake of a day that ended early for everybody when rain left Matt Kenseth as the winner 28 laps later. Earlier, Earnhardt missed his pit box completely and had to circle the 2.5-mile track again, falling from third to 36th place.

But that's another story. This one is about the incident that sent Busch and nine other drivers on a wild spin in Turn 2.

Vickers started this mess by forcing Earnhardt below the dreaded yellow that you can't pass under here and at Talladega. He pleaded guilty to the block, believing he had the right to do that because both cars were fighting for the "lucky dog."

But instead of easing back into the pack, Earnhardt clipped the left rear of Vickers' bumper as he came back onto the track and sent him spinning into the field. Earnhardt made it through unscathed. Vickers was sent to the infield care center.

There was no penalty for Vickers. It is up to NASCAR's judgment whether a driver should be black-flagged for forcing a driver below the line.

There was no penalty for Earnhardt, although Jason Leffler was held five laps in Saturday's Nationwide Series race for a similar incident. Similar, but it wasn't the same in the eyes of NASCAR because officials saw a turn by Leffler that they considered retaliation.

"Here all we saw was two guys racing hard," said Ryan Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition. "You could say it's a mistake. Guys were just being very aggressive."

Earnhardt took offense that he made a mistake, saying he really didn't have control after his car went below the line.

"I didn't have time to judge whether I was going to clear him or not," he said.

Said Busch, "It's not very difficult to ease back in. You just roll out of the throttle and fall back in line."

Responded Earnhardt, "I don't know who's behind me. What happens if I lift and try to pull up in front of somebody?"

That's the beauty of NASCAR. Everybody sees the same accident from a different viewpoint, depending on what eyes or windshield they're looking out from.

All Busch knows is that the incident left him with a 41st-place finish in a car that led three times more laps [88] than any other.

To him, what Earnhardt did was a huge mistake.

"It looked pretty big to me," he said. "It cost the winning car the chance to win the race."

How confident was Busch that he would have won?

"One hundred percent," he said.

In a way this was a carryover from the way Busch started the Chase last season. After winning a series-high eight races in the first 26 events, he began the 10-race playoff with a 34th at New Hampshire (sway bar) and 43rd at Dover (engine) to take him out of title contention.

Sunday's finish, along with failing to overtake former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Tony Stewart on the final lap of Saturday's Nationwide race, left him in a sour mood.

In other words, he was frustrated, "about a 15 on a 10 scale."

"It's just a shame," Busch said. "We were the best car out there. Us, the 24 [Jeff Gordon] was strong, the 11 [Denny Hamlin] was strong, a couple of other guys that we were battling with, but we felt like our car was the car to beat."

Earnhardt didn't deny that.

"Kyle was good enough to win," he said.

But we'll never know for sure because of a mistake that came long before the rain decided this.

"It was really uncalled for to have two lapped cars to be racing with each other and bumping each other like that," Busch said. "You'll have that, I guess, in big-time auto racing."

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