SPARTA — If it weren't for bizarre luck, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have had no luck at all in Sunday's rain-delayed Quaker State 400 Presented by Advance Auto Parts.
Earnhardt Jr. was leading the race on lap 39 when the skin of a tire that had come off Denny Hamlin's car rolled out onto the track while the driver of the No. 11 was trying to nurse his car into the pits.
Earnhardt Jr. ran over it — and never had the same quality of car the rest of the day.
"You can't make luck like that," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We had a good car at the start of the race. We ran over a tire piece off the 11 car in turn 3 and 4, knocked the grill and the front bumper off it. ... The splitter was bent up a little bit. We just had to work real hard to fix that stuff."
In a race dominated by Jimmie Johnson but won by Matt Kenseth, Earnhardt Jr. and his team were able to keep the car on the track and finish 12th.
Yet before the loose wheel incident, Earnhardt Jr. felt he had a car capable of winning,
"I'm disappointed in the luck," Earnhardt Jr. said. "But you can't let that take away from how well the car has been running. You can't start getting angry and start pulling levers and trying to change stuff. We don't need to. We've got fast race cars."
The good news for Earnhardt Jr. is he did gain one place in the season points to sixth.
Kyle vs. Kes
In his personal "triple-header" against Kyle Busch at Kentucky Speedway, Brad Keselowski took the early advantage with a win in the Nationwide Series and a third in trucks, while Busch recorded a fifth in Friday's Nationwide event and a third in Thursday's trucks race.
But the final and most important segment of the contest went decidedly to Busch. In the Sprint Cup race, Busch survived an early spin and finished fifth. Keselowski got collected in an early wreck and finished 33rd, 114 laps off the pace.
Neither driver was happy.
"We just didn't have it all today. We were terrible," said Busch, the 2011 Quaker State 400 champion. "The guys fought hard, and we did the best we could. But we spun out early. There was dirty air. ... It seemed really slick out there today."
Kurt Busch, Kyle's older brother, ruined Keselowski's day — and his bid for a second straight Quaker State 400 championship. On lap 49, the elder Busch tried to make a forward move on the front stretch by diving down onto the front apron. When Kurt Busch tried to move his car back up the track, he got into Keselowski's No. 2 Ford, setting off a seven-car melee.
"We were trying to get patient because it looked like we (would) get the whole race before rain and there was no reason to drive like an animal," Keselowski said. "Apparently, I'm the only one who got that memo."
The 33rd was costly for Keselowski, the defending Sprint Cup champion, dropping him from ninth to 13th in the points.
Crowd good for a Sunday
Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger said he did not know what the attendance was at Sunday's rescheduled Quaker State 400. Originally slated to run Saturday night, the race was postponed by rain. "We were not even scanning (tickets) today," he said.
Simendinger proclaimed himself pleased with Sunday's turnout, however. "I was pretty surprised how many people came back," he said.
UK 'beats' U of L
Late in Sunday's race, Brian Vickers had the No. 55 Aaron's Toyota — sporting a paint scheme honoring the University of Louisville's 2013 NCAA men's basketball championship team — in the top 10.
But only 24 laps from the finish, Vickers blew a tire and crashed into the Turn 3 wall. "Man, that was a hard hit," he said. "Not really sure what happened. It just blew going into three. I just hate it. It was great to have the Louisville Cardinals on the car this week. ... I'd love to have gotten them a victory."
Knocked from the race by the wreck, Vickers ended up 31st. A year ago, when Michael Waltrip drove the No. 55 with a paint scheme honoring Kentucky's 2012 NCAA championship, the UK car finished 30th.