By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Ah, there's nothing like a little controversy to start the 2009 Sprint Cup season.
First, the back story.
It's no secret that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is NASCAR's favorite son. He's the face of the sport, has been its most popular driver the last six years running and, of course, is the offspring of one of the sport's greatest drivers.
Because of all that Junior means to the sport, some wonder whether NASCAR sometimes turns a blind eye when he does something wrong.
That will be a question asked around countless water coolers and lunchrooms on Monday as folks replay Sunday's 51st running of the Daytona 500.
Did NASCAR look the other way and fail to penalize Junior for what seemed like intentionally spinning Brian Vickers, triggering a 10-car wreck?
Or was Junior's action simply a judgment call that could have gone either way -- but probably went his way because of who he is?
Let's set the scene: Vickers and Earnhardt are both racing hard to get back on the lead lap. Vickers intentionally blocks Earnhardt from getting a run on him -- a perfectly legal move by NASCAR rules -- forcing Junior below the double yellow no-passing lines.
Not wanting to be penalized for advancing his position while under the yellow lines, Earnhardt hurriedly works his way back up the track. In the process, he catches the rear of Vickers' Toyota, sending Vickers spinning and triggering a 10-car pileup that knocked Vickers and teammate Scott Speed, among others, out of the race.
Afterward, while Vickers tried to be diplomatic about the event that ended his day prematurely -- even before rain ended the race itself prematurely, as well -- Earnhardt was not so tactful.
Even though it was Earnhardt who hit Vickers' car from behind, starting the "big one" of the day, he refused to accept blame.
And much to the chagrin of many Vickers fans, Earnhardt got away scot-free without even being penalized -- although NASCAR probably should have whistled him for rough driving.
Who was at fault? We'll let you decide, giving Earnhardt the opportunity to plead his case first:
"I got a run on Vickers and the guy he was beside," Earnhardt said. "I went to the bottom (and) Vickers drove me below the line. He ran into me and sent me below the line. I was just trying not to run into him (and) drive into the grass. (I wanted to) get my car under control and try to get above the line so I (wouldn't) get penalized for being down there, (but then) I ran into his quarter panel and spun him out.
"He shouldn't have started that (blocking -- it wouldn't have happened. If he had held his ground, who knows? He would have probably got the (lap) back or got the position back eventually, but at that point in the race, that was pretty reckless."
Still, that's only Earnhardt's opinion. That gray area -- who was more culpable in the incident -- likely caused NASCAR to err on the side of caution.
Or in this case, err on the side of Earnhardt and choose not to penalize him.
"Penalize me? For what?" Earnhardt said. "I got ran into and sent below the line. What the hell? I don't want to go down there. I didn't aim to go down there. I got sent down there. What the hell am I supposed to do? Then what am I supposed to do? Stay down there? No. I got to get back up on the race track.
"It was unfortunate, man. If (Vickers) wasn't so damn reckless, we would have never had that problem; that would never happen. As far as I'm concerned, it is all his responsibility."
For his part, Vickers felt he did nothing wrong. He was fighting Earnhardt for the lucky dog, went down low to block Earnhardt (forcing him below the double yellow line) and then moved back up the track -- only to be spun out.
Ironically, Earnhardt suffered minimal damage and escaped most of the spinning cars that were caught up in the wreck, including the guy who had dominated most of the race up to that point, Kyle Busch.
"It's unfortunate that a guy that's messed up his whole day on pit road (Earnhardt) 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.
"I don't know what they were fighting for because the outside line was coming. Those cars just should have sat there and waited and got back in line when they could."
Did NASCAR turn a blind eye? Vickers sure thought so.
"We're all racing for the lucky dog there and my goal was to keep (Junior) behind me and I went to block him," Vickers said. "I beat him to the yellow line and then he just turned us.
"He hit me the first time on the way down (toward the yellow lines), which is fine. We all do that. Then when he came back up, he just hooked me in the left rear and, typically, NASCAR penalizes."
But NASCAR didn't penalize in this case.
"I think (Jason Leffler) was penalized five laps (in Saturday's Nationwide Series race) for doing the same thing," Vickers said. "I guess they're not going to penalize him (Earnhardt) for it. It's kind of sad. To wreck somebody intentionally like that in front of the entire field is really kind of dangerous.
"That's my biggest problem with it, but apparently he wanted a caution pretty bad."
The tangle with Vickers wasn't Earnhardt's only issue Sunday. He was held for a lap earlier in the race for pitting, as he put it, "one inch out of the pit box" -- although he protested that his right front tire was on the pit box line, which he felt was within the rules.
Who knows? Maybe NASCAR felt that because Junior had already been penalized once in the race, it wouldn't add insult to injury by nailing him again after the run-in with Vickers.
I can see both sides of the argument. But I have to wonder if it was someone other than Earnhardt that wrecked Vickers, maybe the outcome would have been much different.
It sure makes one wonder, doesn't it?