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Earnhardt, Johnson to start Daytona 500 in top eight after Thursday's Duels

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start fifth in Sunday’s Daytona 500, and Jimmie Johnson will join him in the top 10 in eighth, while their Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne will line up 16th and 20th, respectively.

The starting spots were determined after Thursday’s Gatorade Duel 150 races, during which none of the Hendrick Motorsports teammates finished outside the top 10.

Johnson, Gordon and Kahne finished inside the top 10 as the second Gatorade Duel 150 unfolded caution-free at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday. Johnson ran as high as second in his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet and finished third, while Gordon and Kahne finished eighth and 10th, respectively.

Earnhardt, driver of the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet, competed in the first Gatorade Duel on Thursday and finished that race second, giving Hendrick Motorsports a top-10 day at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.

During the second Gatorade Duel, Gordon started third and Johnson started sixth. Kahne, who earned the 10th starting spot, was forced to start Thursday’s 60-lap event from the rear of the field after his No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet was involved in an incident in Wednesday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup practice session.

Within the first half of the race, Johnson improved to third and Kahne was running sixth. Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, radioed to his team that he was experiencing heating issues, and he opted to maintain his pace in the 14th position.

“We really struggled keeping the temperatures down,” Gordon said. “Once we got hot we just really were along for the ride. You know, it looked like the guys up front did gas and gos. We have to look at that as well. It just wasn’t the day we were hoping for, but we have a fast race car.” 

Green-flag stops began on Lap 41, and Gordon was one of the first drivers to hit pit road. He took right-side tires and fuel, while reminding his team that his No. 24 Chevy still was running hot. 
Johnson and Kahne made their stops on the following lap and also took right-side tires and fuel. Kahne opted for a track bar adjustment as well during his stop.

As the race unfolded, the Hendrick teammates maintained their positions inside the top 14. Johnson contended for the lead in the closing laps, but held on to finish third, followed by Gordon and Kahne. 

“It was an awesome race,” Johnson said. “We really had a shot to win that one. It was unfortunate there at the end that there were some lapped cars that were kind of mixed in with the leaders. It would have been nice if they would have let us race there; at least from the white flag on. I understand trying to get a lap back, but when the white (flag) came out, I wish they would have gotten out of there, and I would have had a shot at winning that thing.”

Earnhardt finished second after leading five laps in the first Gatorade Duel 150 earlier Thursday at Daytona International Speedway.  

During the first 60-lap event, Earnhardt started from the outside pole position and surged to the front within the first five laps. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet paced the field for five laps, when he was shuffled to the back of the pack for a pit road violation. Earnhardt pitted for a chassis adjustment, fuel and four tires on Lap 10, but during the stop, NASCAR officials ruled his crew left the wall too soon. As a result, Earnhardt was shuffled to the back of the pack, where he praised his team’s enthusiasm and told the crew not to worry about it.  

Earnhardt lined up 19th for the Lap 14 restart, and quickly worked his way into the top 10 within two laps. The driver of the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet took advantage of a caution period to pit for fuel on Lap 52. This time, the No. 88 crew was flawless, and Earnhardt picked up five spots on pit road. He restarted in fifth with four laps to go and battled fiercely for the lead before taking runner-up honors.

“I feel good about running second, and bringing home a car in one piece,” Earnhardt said. “Hopefully we will get through the next couple of days without any troubles as far as we don’t want to pull out a back-up (car). We want to start the (Daytona) 500 with this car. That has been our goal all week. We were able to race in this race and still take care of our equipment. I am pretty proud.”

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