Brian Vickers naturally was startled when Dale Earnhardt Jr. clipped his car's rear quarter panel during the Daytona 500 last Sunday, sending Vickers' car careening sideways and sparking a multi-car crash that became a signature moment of the big race.
But Vickers was even more surprised by what came next.
Instead of siding with Earnhardt, NASCAR's most popular driver, some fans and media members agreed with Vickers in blaming Earnhardt for triggering the melee, even though Earnhardt blamed Vickers and at one point called Vickers' driving "reckless."
"I was very surprised," Vickers said Thursday ahead of Sunday's Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, the next race on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule.
"I just assumed this was going to be my fault -- it really didn't matter what happened -- from the fans' perspective," Vickers said. "It's the first time that I can remember that Junior's been judged on his actions and not his popularity."
Vickers, Earnhardt and the rest of NASCAR's Cup drivers are scheduled to practice and qualify today at the two-mile Fontana oval to set the 43-car field for Sunday's 250-lap race.
But the sport was still buzzing about Lap 124 of the rain-shortened Daytona 500, when Vickers and Earnhardt were both one lap down but near the front of the pack.
Each was trying to be in position to get NASCAR's "lucky dog" pass, in which the first car one lap down can return to the lead lap -- and effectively back into contention -- if a caution flag comes out.
And with rain heading toward Daytona Beach, Fla., each knew there wasn't much time left.
On the back straightaway, Vickers' No. 83 Red Bull Toyota was in front of Earnhardt's No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, when Earnhardt tried to pass on the left.
Vickers moved left to block, nearly forcing Earnhardt off the track and into the infield. In response, Earnhardt turned right, back into Vickers, sending Vickers sideways and starting the crash.
Vickers' car was done for the day and he finished 39th, while Earnhardt, who was able to continue, finished 27th.
"It's superspeedway racing, we block, that's what we do," said Vickers, 25. "If I had to do it again, I'd try to block him again. When I blocked him, he hit me in the back, we got loose."
Vickers said he and Earnhardt "have always gotten along really well" and noted that "Junior's probably one of the best at blocking" on high-speed tracks. "I've learned a lot of the tricks I've learned about superspeedway racing from him," Vickers said.
Earnhardt had suffered pit-road mistakes earlier in the race and more than one observer suggested that frustration might have played a role in Earnhardt's aggressive driving.
In addition, Vickers and Earnhardt have some history. On the last lap of the fall race at Talladega Superspeedway in 2006, Vickers was on the bumper of then-teammate Jimmie Johnson when both attempted to pass Earnhardt for the win.
But as they pulled out to pass, Vickers clipped Johnson, spinning out Johnson and Earnhardt and clearing the way for Vickers to record his only Cup series victory to date.
Still, Vickers on Thursday was careful to say that he could not know whether any of those events were on Earnhardt's mind when they collided Sunday.
"It's racing, we've all been there," Vickers said. "It's just a split-second decision."
And Earnhardt? "I'm ready to move on," Earnhardt said this week, "and we're looking forward to seeing what we can do in California."