Dale Earnhardt Jr. made it absolutely clear: when it comes to incidents on the racetrack or mistakes on pit road, the buck stops squarely with the driver of the #88 Chevrolet. Period.

It was a contrite, forthright Earnhardt who spoke to a mob of reporters behind his transporter after the first Sprint Cup practice session, less than a week after the Daytona 500 wreck that shoved him front and centre into a maelstrom of controversy.

For the record, Earnhardt was a lap down in last Sunday's Daytona 500 after suffering a penalty for pitting with his right front tyre on the outside line of his stall. Believing he had to move to the front of the field to regain the lost lap, Earnhardt was racing all-out against Brian Vickers, who also was a lap down, after a restart on lap 124.

Vickers blocked Earnhardt, forcing the #88 to the apron. But, as he moved back up onto the banking, Earnhardt clipped the left rear of Vickers' Toyota, igniting a ten-car wreck that sapped the strength from the field - notably the #18 Toyota of Kyle Busch, who had led 88 of the first 123 laps.

By then, Earnhardt already had made a succession of pit-road mistakes during Speedweeks, including missing his pit box entirely earlier in the 500.

But, after a week of uncharacteristic criticism from fans, the media and fellow competitors, Earnhardt shouldered responsibility for a miserable week at Daytona, along with explaining his mind-set as the rain-shortened Daytona 500 moved toward its conclusion.

"Well, I definitely could have used better judgment, going back up on the racetrack," he said, "It's hard to tell. There was rain coming. I was a lap down. I had to get my lap back, if I was going to try to win the race... The race was getting ready to be rained out, everybody knew that, so you race hard.

"I hate that they wrecked all the cars, and I hate that me and Brian had to get on bad terms with each other. Those things I regret, but I'm out there racing. I've made mistakes before, and it probably won't be the last one I make."

It was Vickers, you'll recall, who wrecked Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson at Talladega in October 2006, in the race that gave Vickers his only Cup win to date. But Earnhardt dismissed as absurd any notion, advanced by bloggers during the past few days, that the Daytona wreck was somehow payback for the Talladega incident.

"I called him this week," Earnhardt revealed, "People said it was intentional on the television, and I wanted to make sure he knew that it wasn't intentional, that I didn't have a problem with him and that I wouldn't wreck him intentionally. I think we got that cleared up."

As to the pit road problems, Earnhardt said there was no need to do a post-mortem on the mistakes with crew chief Tony Eury Jr and spotter TJ Majors.

"I just wasn't paying attention coming around on that second stop, when I missed my stall," Earnhardt said, "The next stop, that was unfortunate. We weren't on the line 'til I turned the tyres to the right... I take full responsibility for what happened on pit-road. It's up to me to make sure I get the job done."

by Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service