(UPDATED) Costly mistake for Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Crashes early at Texas, car catches fire; Johnson also has woes

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It was a rough start to Monday’s rain-postponed Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway for Sprint Cup points leader and Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Just two laps after the race went green on Lap 11 – due to green/yellow competition caution conditions for the first 10 laps – Earnhardt was heading into turn 1 when his left front tire got into the soggy infield grass.

The front end of Earnhardt’s car sank hard into the grass. The car shot off the grass and abruptly turned to the right and hard into the outside retaqining wall at close to 190 mph.

Compounding the issue was Earnhardt’s car caught fire shortly upon impact. He rolled the car towards the infield and climbed out while track safety personnel extinguished the blaze.

Crew chief Steve Letarte said over the team radio that they were going to evaluate the extent of the damage and see if it would be possible to make repairs and get Earnhardt back on the track.

“Just ran into the grass on the apron on the front straightaway there,” Earnhardt told Fox Sports. “I was following the 43 (Aric Almirola) and just didn’t see the grass, didn’t know the grass was down there that close. I really didn’t have a good visual where the grass was and just got there pretty good, that’s all.

“… It was just a mistake on my part.”

Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson’s car also was damaged when some of the grass kicked up by Earnhardt’s car, as well as some of the tire from the left front tire of Earnhardt’s car slammed into Johnson’s windshield. Johnson was forced to pit three different times in the following 15 laps for repairs to be performed.

Johnson, who won at TMS last fall, suffered additional problems around Lap 42 when his left rear tire blew out, forcing him to pit for a fourth time in the race, leaving him three laps off the lead lap.

Johnson then pitted under the competition yellow caution on Lap 48 for additional repairs, this time to the right rear of his No. 48 Chevrolet.

Casey Mears’ car also suffered similar damage — although not as extensive as what Johnson suffered. He brought his car into the pits for repairs and went back onto the track.

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March 28 in Motorsports History: Adrian Fernandez wins Motegi’s first race

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While auto racing is an international sport, oval racing remains uniquely American. 

That almost always has remained the case since the inception of the sport, but in 1998, the citizens of Japan got their first taste of American oval racing.

Having opened the previous year, Twin Ring Motegi was built by Honda in an effort to bring Indy-style racing to the Land of the Rising Sun. 

Adrian Fernandez was the first driver to win at the facility, taking the checkered flag in CART’s inaugural race after shaking off flu earlier that day.

Fernandez held off a hard-charging Al Unser Jr to win by 1.086 seconds. The victory was the second of his career and his first since Toronto in 1996.

Adrian Fernandez celebrates with Al Unser Jr and Gil de Ferran after winning the inaugural race at Motegi. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

The race was also memorable for a violent crash involving Bobby Rahal.

Running third with 15 laps remaining, Rahal’s right front suspension broke in Turn 2, causing his car to hit the outside wall and flip down the backstretch.

Luckily, Rahal walked away from the accident without a scratch.

“The car was on rails through (turns) 1 and 2, and all of a sudden it just got up into the marbles, and it was gone,” Rahal said. “Thank God we’ve got such safe cars.”

The following season, Fernadez went back-to-back and won again at Motegi. The track remained on the CART schedule until 2002.

In 2003, Honda switched their alliance to the Indy Racing Leauge, and Motegi followed suit.

The track continued to host IndyCar racing until 2011 with the final race being held on the facility’s 2.98-mile road course, as the oval sustained damage in the Tōhoku earthquake earlier that year.

Also on this date:

1976: Clay Regazzoni won the United States Grand Prix – West, Formula One’s first race on the Long Beach street circuit. The Grand Prix would become an IndyCar event following the 1983 edition of the race.

1993: Ayrton Senna won his home race, the Grand Prix of Brazil, for the second and final time of his career. The victory was also the 100th in F1 for McLaren.

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