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Atlanta recap: Johnson top finisher in 12th

 

HAMPTON, Ga. (March 7, 2010) – Despite a strong start, Hendrick Motorsports drivers struggled with handling and tire issues during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday.

Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson paced the weekend practice sessions, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon also posting strong speeds. Earnhardt went on to score his first pole position of the 2010 season during Friday’s qualifying session and was joined in the top five by Martin (fourth) and Gordon (fifth). Johnson rolled off the grid in 16th.

But when the green flag fell for Sunday’s scheduled 325-lap event, different issues arose for the teammates.

Earnhardt raced inside the top 10 for the first 100 laps, when he felt a tire vibrating on his No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet. He decided to pit under green-flag conditions.

“It felt like the wheels were coming off,” Earnhardt said. “We pitted, and the wheel was fine, but the car was vibrating so bad I couldn’t hardly see. I should have not pitted, but I thought the wheel was loose and I have had them come off here and that isn’t fun. I should’ve just stayed out there and waited for it to come off.”

Earnhardt returned to the track 31st and started to climb through the field. He improved 16 spots by the end of the race and crossed the finish line 15th. He gained two spots in the driver standings and now ranks 13th.

Martin took the green flag on the second row behind Earnhardt and immediately experienced a tight-handling issue and then a flat left-rear tire on his No. 5 Hendrickcars.com/GoDaddy.com Chevrolet. Martin saved the car, and his No. 5 team added four new tires that the NASCAR veteran used to break into the top 12 by Lap 220. Martin was running in the top 10 with only a few laps to go when he was involved in a multi-car incident in Turn 4. He crossed the finish line 33rd and now ranks seventh in the driver standings.

Gordon kept his No. 24 DuPont/National Guard Chevrolet in the top 10 until Lap 140. Tires were an issue, and Gordon said the only real way to prevent an incident was to slow down. Gordon improved two spots in the driver standings to 11th and finished Sunday’s race in 18th.

“I think it’s one of those things where when they come here and test, you expect them to build a tire that we can abuse and that we can race hard with,” Gordon said. “That obviously wasn’t the case. There is a good chance we were too aggressive, but until we go back and analyze everything it’s hard to say.”

Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s/KOBALT Tools Chevrolet, was running fourth by Lap 280 and appeared set to contend for his third straight Sprint Cup win. But the late-race cautions deterred Johnson, and he crossed the finish line 12th. He now ranks fourth in the driver standings.

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