By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
It's bad enough that Brian Vickers, Kyle Busch and others publicly criticized Dale Earnhardt Jr. for wrecking them and causing a 10-car pileup in last Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500.
But when Jeff Burton – known as "The Senator" in Sprint Cup racing for his level-headed style of fairness on and off the track – also chews you out for racing in a such a way that he blames you for his ultimately wrecking in another incident at Daytona, something is definitely wrong.
There's no dispute Earnhardt wrecked Vickers while both were one lap down and dramatically changed the outcome of the 500 – knocking out many of the race's leading cars at that point.
And while Burton's accusation may be a bit of a stretch, Earnhardt still continued to affirm that he did nothing wrong in either case Friday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., site of Sunday's Auto Club 500.
First, here's Earnhardt's latest take on the tangle with Vickers.
"My statistics at (restrictor) plate tracks speak for themselves and I don't have to really defend myself of how good a plate-racer I am and what kind of moves I make out on the race track," Earnhardt said. "I've got just as much right to be on that race track and do whatever the hell I want to do on it as anybody else out there. I'll race just as hard as I choose to race and want to race and I race people how I want to be raced. I've always raced with a lot of respect and I'll continue to do so in the future."
Junior, here's some unsolicited advice. Do with it what you want, but don't continue to be obstinate and continue to claim you did nothing wrong at Daytona.
Let's look at things again:
You're a lap down, battling a guy ahead of you who is in the same boat and you're both trying to get back on the lead lap. It's understandable that you’re a hard racer.
But at the same time, pick your spots a bit more judiciously. Don't jeopardize the rest of the field, particularly the race leaders that are alongside of you and simply minding their own business – only to end their days prematurely because you got a bit antsy, Junior.
And don't be so wishy-washy. Take your criticism like a man.
Don't say one second, "I definitely could have used better judgment coming back up on the race track," and then the next second add, "It's hard to tell (if his judgment was wrong)."
In so doing, you're just burying yourself and your case deeper with every additional word.
Still, Earnhardt kept trying to make others see what a blind man would have even criticized him for.
"I hate that it wrecked all them cars and I hate that me and (Vickers) had to get on bad terms with each other," Earnhardt said. "Those things I regret, but I'm out there racing. I've made mistakes before and probably won't be the last one that I make."
Earnhardt did admit one thing Friday: that he spoke with Vickers a few days ago to smooth things over.
"(Vickers) said it was intentional on TV," Earnhardt said. "I wanted to make sure he knew it wasn't intentional and that I didn't have a problem with him and that I wouldn't wreck him intentionally. I was just trying to clear that up with him. I think we got that cleared up."
Clearing things up with everyone else is a whole other story.
"I did get ripped up quite a bit," he admitted. "There's a lot of people that like you and there's a lot of people that don't like you. When you give them people that don't like you an opportunity, they're going to come out of the woods after you and that's just the case of what's happening this weekend."
The ironic thing in this lingering episode is that the solution is so very simple, yet Earnhardt is just too stubborn or naïve to see it. All he has to do is say he's sorry and he'd suddenly be back in the good graces of his fellow competitors, the media that vilified him after the race and his fans and non-fans alike that chastised him.
Sure, he may have called up Vickers and also chatted with Burton, but what about guys like Scott Speed and Kyle Busch, who were victimized the most by Earnhardt's run-in with Vickers?
"I wasn't going to call them all up," he joked.
Sorry, wrong time to joke about something that remains such a serious issue in the sport.
As for Vickers, he's gotten over the run-in with Earnhardt, but not the fallout.
"What has happened so far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by," Vickers said. "I have to be honest with you, I almost have to apologize to the fans – I just assumed that obviously with Junior being the most popular person by far and away that this was going to be my fault no matter what happened. Everyone was going to side with him.
"The fans as a whole have been very supportive and really judged the situation based on the actions and not on anyone’s popularity. I don’t really read a lot of racing news but there’s been a lot of it sent to me this week. I saw polls where 90 percent of the fans said it was his fault and 60 percent of them claim to be his fans, which has really been a shift in popular opinion from what I’ve seen in the past. It’s really changed a lot. I think the media handled the situation a lot different than I suspected and I have to thank everyone for that."
Now, the Burton situation is a bit more convoluted. I'm half-tempted to give Earnhardt the benefit of the doubt on this one.
It was after the big pileup and racing had resumed when Earnhardt went three-wide into turn two, with Burton in one of the two cars alongside.
"There was big sense of urgency at that point of the race due to the weather, he was shuffled back and several laps later he wrecked," Earnhardt said. "(Burton) was like, 'Man, you doing what you did put me in that position (to wreck) 10 laps later.' I'm like, 'What? I can't be responsible for that.'
"That's not my responsibility. How can you pin that on me like that? We sat there and debated my ethics and my values and all those things and ended up agreeing that I'm not a jerk and don't race like a jerk. He was just kind of hot under the collar a little bit."
But still, when you tick off one of the most fair-minded guys in the sport, whether he was right or wrong in accusing you of something, discretion is the better part of valor.
Admit you screwed up, take your lumps and move on. Don't continue to moan how much you were maligned and how you feel all the criticism is unfair.
Heck, you brought it on yourself with your words and actions, Junior. Not anyone else – just you.
Needless to say, Sunday's second race of the season, the Auto Club 500, should be very interesting. Earnhardt is going to find out who his friends still are and aren't real fast.
But it sure wouldn't hurt to do what he should have done last Sunday and simply say, "I'm sorry."