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Johnson, Gordon finish inside top six, keep top-10 streaks intact at Sonoma

 

SONOMA, Calif. – Jimmie Johnson crossed the finish line fifth on Sunday to pick up his fourth straight top-10 finish at Sonoma, while teammate Jeff Gordon rallied from a mid-race fuel issue to capture sixth, his seventh straight top-10 result at the 1.99-mile road course.

Their Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 14th and 23rd, respectively, in a race that featured just two caution periods – a new track record. In the driver standings, Earnhardt is ranked third, while Johnson is fourth, Kahne is 17th and Gordon is 18th.

Gordon opened Sunday’s race from second and chased leader Marcos Ambrose until Lap 12, when Gordon slipped by the pole sitter. The driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet paced the field for 13 laps to record 23,000 career laps led, most among active drivers and seventh all-time.

While Gordon led the pack, Johnson and Kahne improved their running positions. Johnson, who started third, climbed as high as second, while Kahne quietly maneuvered his way into the top 10 within the first 25 laps.  Earnhardt, who started 19th on the 11-turn road course, fervently worked to improve his track position, despite the backlog of traffic and a handling issue that crept up during the early stages of the race.

Gordon’s lead began to dissipate midway into his run, and the driver of the No. 24 Chevy radioed to crew chief Alan Gustafson that the grip in his rear tires was fading. On Lap 25, Gordon gave up the lead and slipped into the top five as Johnson drove by.

Sunday’s race continued under green-flag conditions, and the Hendrick Motorsports’ quartet made its pit stops around Lap 35. Kahne drove his No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet into the top 10 as the green-flag stops began.  Gordon picked up four tires, fuel and a chassis adjustment – all of which helped the handling of his No. 24 Chevrolet.

Johnson got four tires and a chassis adjustment to his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet and returned to the track inside the top five. Earnhardt and Kahne also made swift stops for tires and fuel without sacrificing track position.

At the halfway point of the race, most of the teams went into fuel conservation mode. On Lap 68, Johnson heeded the advice of crew chief Chad Knaus gave into a battle for third with Gordon so he could save fuel. Several laps later, the No. 48 team, running fourth, stopped for tires and fuel.

On Lap 71, Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet sputtered while running third, and he tried to get around traffic to make his way down pit road. Once on pit road, Gordon slid to the right to let Kahne pass for his scheduled stop. Gordon managed to coast into his pit box, where his team gave the No. 24 Chevy four tires and plenty of fuel. He returned to the track running 15th.

Kahne, meanwhile, took four tires and fuel and returned immediately to the 1.99-mile road course running inside the top 10. Crew chief Kenny Francis radioed to Kahne that he could make it the remaining 30 laps, if necessary, on fuel.

The first caution flag of the race was waved on Lap 82 for a spin on the track. At that point, Johnson was running third, Kahne sixth, Gordon 13th and Earnhardt 22nd. During the yellow-flag period, crew chief Steve Letarte radioed to Earnhardt that he should plan to hit pit road because his No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet would be a few laps short on fuel. Gordon, also conscious of fuel-mileage, hit pit road for fresh tires and a splash of gas. Meanwhile, Johnson and Kahne remained on track to maintain their positions inside the top six for the restart.

The field restarted on Lap 87, and Johnson took the green-light from Knaus to forego fuel concerns and nudged his way past Kyle Busch to maintain third, while Kahne improved to fifth. Earnhardt climbed three spots to take 16th on the restart, but Kahne’s No. 5 Chevy began to suffer on older tires.

With 18 laps left, Johnson was running third, and Kahne had dropped to 11th. Gordon continued his forward charge and moved past Kahne on the following lap, narrowly missing a spin by the No. 11 car. Earnhardt, running 17th, followed Gordon and swung wide to miss the spun-out No. 11.

With 14 laps to go, Gordon was racing hard for eighth position. As the battle for first continued to play out, Francis called Kahne onto pit road for fresh tires on his No. 5 Chevrolet. He returned to the track 22nd, just in time for the second caution period of the day, which would set up a green-white-checkered flag finish.

During the yellow-flag laps, the drivers inside the top 10, including Johnson and Gordon and 11th-place Kahne, remained on track, while Earnhardt joined the remainder of the field in pitting.

In the field’s first attempt at a green-white-checkered flag, the Hendrick Motorsports teammates lined up inside the top 13 – Johnson in fourth, Gordon seventh, Kahne 11th and Earnhardt 13th. Johnson lost one spot to finish fifth, and Gordon improved to score sixth. Kahne slipped to 14th, and Earnhardt took 23rd after his No. 88 Chevrolet sustained some damage to the left-rear during a collision on the last lap.

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