DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sentimental and Vegas betting-odds favorite for Sunday’s Daytona 500, had his fans dreaming about a storybook win as he was in the lead more than halfway through The Great American Race.

Then, on Turn 3 at Lap 104, Kyle Busch’s car blew a tire. The resulting multi-car crash caused heavy damage to the front of Earnhardt’s No. 88 vehicle. Earnhardt turned into the pits. His crew tried, but the mechanics were unable to repair the car in the five minutes allowed to them under a rule instituted by NASCAR for the first race of the season.

So the 42-year-old Earnhardt’s first outing since July 9 — he missed the second half of the season after suffering a concussion — was over.

“Everybody was looking forward to getting back to the racetrack,” Earnhardt said. “It meant a lot to me. And I’m just sorry we weren’t able to deliver a better result today for all our fans and everybody that was looking forward to today. We had a great car. At least we went out leading the race.”

Busch, the younger brother of eventual winner Kurt Busch, was racing ahead of Earnhardt, but he was a full lap back. Earnhardt just couldn’t avoid the contact.

“I tried to get the wheel turned and get down the racetrack, but I lifted off the gas to miss it, and got on the splitter a little bit and the car went straight,” Earnhardt said. “We jumped him and got in the wall a little bit. Wasn’t too hard of a hit. We thought we could get the car fixed and get back out there and see what we could do with the rest of the day and make up some spots, maybe. But there is just too much damage.”

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Luckily, there was no damage to Earnhardt, who said he plans to race again next Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“I feel good,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t have any symptoms or anything that I’ve experienced in the past. It was not that hard of a hit. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get injured. You’re always at risk. It’s dangerous. You can’t race with fear. You can’t go out there and worry about getting hurt.”

The crash ended the days of not only Earnhardt and Kyle Busch but also of Matt Kenseth, Ty Dillon and Erik Jones. It was the first of three big wrecks that thinned the field at the finish.