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Kahne fourth, Earnhardt ninth at Talladega

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. battled fiercely during the green-white-checkered flag at Talladega Superspeedway and crossed the finish line inside the top seven in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup event.

Kahne drove his No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet to a fourth-place finish, his second top-five of the season, and improves to 19th in the driver standings. Earnhardt, driver of the No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet, finished ninth to collect his sixth straight top-10 finish of the season and eighth overall. He ranks third in the driver standings after nine races in the Cup season.

The Hendrick Motorsports teammates survived several late-race incidents and issues with water temperature to secure spots inside the top seven. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson weren’t as fortunate, though, and they were scored with finishes of 33rd and 35th, respectively.

Gordon opened Sunday’s race from the pole position – the 71st of his career – and he maintained his footing inside the top 10. By Lap 28, he was joined inside the top 10 by teammate Earnhardt, who started the 500-mile event from 18th.

On Lap 45, Johnson and Earnhardt made their charge for the front, moving into the second and third spots. One circuit later, Johnson took the lead and paced the field for five laps, with Earnhardt following closely behind.

Gordon wasn’t trailing by much and secured second among his teammates on Lap 52. At this point, Johnson, Gordon and Earnhardt were running in the third, fourth and fifth spots. Meanwhile, Kahne’s team welcomed new spotter Clayton Spruill once his current spotter was sidelined with laryngitis.
 
When green-flag stops began on Lap 58, Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt still were running in the top four. Gordon and Kahne stopped on Lap 60 for tires, fuel and adjustments, while Earnhardt and Johnson pitted on the next lap. Earnhardt’s team tackled the loose-handling condition he reported earlier, and Johnson took right-side tires only.

Johnson was the new race leader once stops cycled through, but within the next lap, he reported an engine issue that hindered the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet. Earnhardt slid into the top spot as his teammate headed for pit road and then the garage, where the No. 48 team attempted to make the necessary repairs. Despite the intense heat at the 2.66-mile racetrack, Johnson said his water temperatures appeared unaffected.

“No, it is definitely something different for us,” Johnson said. “I started 19th and was able to manage my temperatures pretty good coming up through the pack. Up there leading in all that clean air, my stuff was way cold. We had a problem with oil pressure; the No. 39 did as well. I’m hopeful my Hendrick teammates stay out there on the road all day today.”

After extensive efforts by the No. 48 team, the Lowe’s Chevrolet was sidelined for the rest of the day, and Johnson watched the rest of the race from atop the No. 88 pit box.

Earnhardt, Gordon and Kahne maintained their presence inside the top 10. On Lap 87, Gordon reported to crew chief Alan Gustafson that he was experiencing an issue with his gauges on the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet.  Gustafson instructed Gordon to drop to the back of the pack where he could get clean air. The driver of the No. 24 Chevy said that appeared to be helping, and they duo prepared for major adjustments during the next stop.

Kahne moved into the lead on Lap 88, to pace the field for the first time during the 2012 Cup season. Green-flag pit stops began for the second time of the race on Lap 100, and Earnhardt and Kahne stopped for tires and fuel. Five laps after pit stops, Earnhardt was running again among the leaders, this time with Gordon behind him. Gordon reported that his gauges were fluctuating, but he held steady with his teammates.

Thirty-eight laps later, the first multi-car incident of the race unfolded. Kahne narrowly avoided it in his No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, but Gordon wasn’t so fortunate. With 46 laps to go, one competitor ran out of fuel in the top lane, jamming up the field, and Gordon ultimately was collected by another competitor at the bottom of the high-banked oval.

“I’m not sure what happened,” Gordon said. “But man, this is just one of the most bizarre years that this DuPont Chevrolet team and Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet team has ever gone through.

“That’s just the way our season has been going. Awesome race car, but this temperature thing is kind of a joke. They’re going to have to fix that.”

The yellow-flag period gave Gordon’s teammates an opportunity to pit for adjustments. Up until that point, Earnhardt had reported to crew chief Steve Letarte that his car was loose. Earnhardt’s team made a major change during the ensuing pit stop to the No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet.

As the race continued, Earnhardt and Kahne maintained a close eye on their temperatures inside their Chevrolets while running around the top 10. The duo avoided a subsequent incident and lined up just outside the top 10 with four laps to go. As it turns out, they were in a perfect position on the restart because both drivers missed a wreck that immediately unfolded in Turn 1.

The late-race accident set up a green-white-checkered flag attempt. Earnhardt and Kahne lined up inside the top seven and held on to finish fourth and ninth, respectively, as the race concluded.

Next up, the Hendrick teammates will compete at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway on Saturday, May 12.

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