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Hendrick teammates finish in top 14 at Michigan

BROOKLYN, Mich. – Jimmie Johnson lined up on the front row next to Kyle Busch for the final restart in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Michigan International Speedway. Just laps earlier, Johnson had claimed the lead off a restart, but this time, the driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet wasn’t able to get by Busch despite his best efforts. Johnson finished the event second, picking up his best result at the two-mile oval, while his Hendrick Motorsports teammates finished inside the top 14. Mark Martin was fourth, while Jeff Gordon was sixth. Dale Earnhardt Jr. took 14th.

Johnson’s team continually worked on his No. 48 Chevrolet and improved its handling during the early stages of the race. But the biggest break for the No. 48 team happened when the caution flag was waved on Lap 168 and Johnson was on pit road. He made it back onto the track without penalty and inherited the lead from Gordon when yellow-flag pit stops began. Johnson won the ensuing restart and led the next 18 laps. He held his position steady inside the top three, even during the final caution period of the race, ultimately crossing the finish line second.

“Great finish for the Lowe’s team,” said Johnson, who ranks second in the driver standings. “Very proud of the effort and can’t thank all the employees of Lowe’s enough for their support. We had a tough start to the race on pit road, but we got that stuff ironed out and we had great pit stops from then on.

“Once I was up front in clear air, the balance of the car was just too loose,” Johnson said. “I got away from Kyle (Busch), but I was loose, and I knew he was going to show up. And he did.

Martin, driver of the No. 5 CARQUEST Auto Parts/GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, was the strongest car during Saturday’s practice session, but on Sunday, handling was an issue for him, too. He dropped from his fifth-place starting spot within the opening laps, but benefited from some early pit strategy. During the first caution period on Lap 30, Martin took just right-side tires. That call catapulted the No. 5 Chevy ahead 12 spots, and he was able to work his way among the leaders. On Lap 56, Martin became the leader and he led two laps. With the handling nearly perfect, Martin continually ran with the leaders and crossed the finish line fourth to claim his second top-five finish of the 2011 season and improve to 16th in the standings. He remains in the wild-card race for a spot inside the upcoming Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

“Such a privilege to drive cars like that,” Martin said. “(Crew chief) Lance McGrew and all the guys on the No. 5 car did a great job, GoDaddy.com, as well. They really had a fast race car all weekend, and it’s a privilege to get to race at Michigan International Speedway and drive fast enough. We were right there and could see the lead, and, you know, anytime you can see the lead, you got a crack at it. I feel very fortunate.”

Gordon led a race-high 50 laps on his way to breaking the 22,000-lap mark for laps led. Already the leader among active drivers, Gordon remains seventh with 22,019 laps led. He needs 1,111 to catch sixth-place Darrell Waltrip.

During Sunday’s race, Gordon didn’t need much help from his team on the No. 24 Chevrolet until the end. In the beginning and the middle stages of the race, Gordon believed his car was running nearly perfect, and was fine with fuel-and-tire only pit stops. Gordon had little trouble driving his No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet through the field and claimed the lead on three different occasions. As the race unfolded, though, track position wasn’t his friend, and he finished sixth.

“There at the end, I just didn’t get clear of the (No.) 17 and then the (No.) 2 got in there, and when that happened, it just killed us,” said Gordon, who now ranks sixth in the driver standings. “We got real, real tight behind those guys. Then we got some debris on the grill that started messing with us. But, hey, all-in-all solid day for the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. Solid effort, and the cars we’re bringing to the racetrack right now, it’s just a lot of fun right now. There at the end, I think we just needed a little bit better track position.”

Earnhardt lined up eighth and was running fourth within the first 25 laps. A loose-handling issue crept up after Earnhardt brought the No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet onto pit road for the first stop of the day. Earnhardt believed it had to do with the tires and, after a subsequent pit stop almost 30 laps laps later, commented that he didn’t have much right-rear grip. The team continued to work, and Earnhardt drove his way back through the field. He cracked the top 10 on Lap 154 and remained inside there until the final caution flag was waved. Then, the No. 88 team decided to make a quick two-tire stop to gear up for the restart. Earnhardt crossed the finish line 14th and ranks ninth in the standings.

“There at the end, we took two tires like a lot of guys,” Earnhardt said. “We just didn’t have the good fortune there at the end.”

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