CONCORD, N.C. - NASCAR's most popular driver took series officials to task Friday for disallowing Regan Smith's last-lap pass below the yellow line in an attempt to win last Sunday's Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
Smith ducked below the yellow line to pass leader Tony Stewart and crossed the finish line first. NASCAR officials disallowed the pass, which is generally prohibited unless the driver is forced below the yellow. Officials said they did not believe Smith had been forced below the yellow line.
"I feel like the rule is pretty clear. What is unclear is what being forced below the yellow line is," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Friday at Lowe's Motor Speedway. "In my opinion, (Smith) was forced below the yellow line.
"The two did make contact. He was on the inside of Tony. In my opinion (Smith) wins the race. I feel like Tony did what he had to do. In the car, everyone would have done what Tony did and everyone would have done what (Smith) did.
"What's curious is, when are you forced? Show me some video of what's forced and what's not.
"He can't sit there and hold his line. He'd just wreck, Tony and probably himself. That's just ridiculous to expect someone to be that bullheaded about a situation like that and put everyone in jeopardy."
Earnhardt Jr. said the incident was similar to a NASCAR call that went his way in a victory at Talladega in 2003 when he appeared to pass then-leader Matt Kenseth below the yellow line.
"It was exactly the same. I was forced below (the yellow line) and that was declared OK," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I know for a fact Regan didn't go down the front straightaway with a plan to pass (Stewart) on the apron. He was under (Stewart) on the race track when Tony came down and he was forced onto the apron.
"I could actually almost live with (Smith) finishing second and Tony declared the winner, but (Smith) was told he was not forced - which was wrong - and then he was sent to 18th place."
Earnhardt Jr. said it is the responsibility of drivers to bring up questions about rules with series officials, whether done in a drivers' meeting or in private. He acknowledged that some drivers might feel intimidated asking questions in front of everyone else.
The driver also said he thought the outcome at Talladgea may well have been different if it hadn't been Smith racing Stewart for the win.
"This is Regan Smith. If it's a guy who's won seven championships, maybe it's a different discussion. This guy ain't got a job next year as far as he knows," Earnhardt Jr. said. "He crossed the finish line thinking he won the race and he ends up finishing 18th.
"You can tell him all day long everyone in the garage knows who won that race and this that and the other to try to make him feel better, but it won't happen. It's tough."