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Johnson third at Watkins Glen, becomes new points leader

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Jimmie Johnson successfully steered his No. 48 Lowe’s Cortez Silver Chevrolet to a third-place finish, despite an exciting last-lap dash on Sunday at Watkins Glen International. With the top-five NASCAR Sprint Cup result – his first at the track since 2007—Johnson now becomes the new leader in the driver standings with four races left before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins.

“The first segment we were pretty far off when we came in,” Johnson said. “Then in that first stop, we made some adjustments and got the car back into the condition I needed it in.  Those last two laps were just out of control with the oil down. You’re studying the road trying to see if you can see an oil trail, but there wasn’t one large visible (patch of oil) that you could dodge. But you could feel the oil on your tires, and guys were sliding all over. It was chaos, but I’m glad we got back to the finish line. Very solid day for this Lowe’s team.”

Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates finished inside the top 28. Kasey Kahne scored 13th, while Jeff Gordon took 21st and Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the line in 28th.

Sunday’s race opened uneventfully for Hendrick Motorsports, as the teammates climbed into the top 11 by Lap 40. Johnson was running third, Earnhardt in eighth, Gordon in 10th and Kahne 11th. 

The teammates discussed varying pit strategies as the race unfolded.  Kahne initially discovered his air conditioning vent was malfunctioning, so he disconnected it before he quietly made his climb through the field. Johnson maintained his presence inside the top three, and Gordon was contending for fifth, despite reporting a handling issue to crew chief Alan Gustafson.

After green-flag pit stops on Lap 25, Earnhardt was running eighth, while Johnson was 21st, Gordon in 23rd and Kahne in 29th. The caution flag waved one lap later for a spin on the track, giving the Hendrick Motorsports teammates an opportunity to work on track position or their car’s handling.

Past the midway point, Kahne rallied to crack the top 10, but reported an issue with his right-front, potentially a flat tire, and made his way down pit road. The driver of the No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet was clocked too fast entering pit road on Lap 47 and was required to complete a pass-through penalty, which affected his track position.

Johnson climbed to seventh, while Earnhardt made green-flag pit stops just prior to the caution flag being waved on Lap 59. Johnson and Gordon took advantage of the opportunity to stop for four tires. With fresh tires and fuel, the teammates set up for the restart on Lap 62. Earnhardt, running third after the majority of the field hit pit road, opted to stay on the track because crew chief Steve Letarte reported that rain was nearby. 

When the green flag dropped, Earnhardt slid into fourth, Johnson held 11th, Gordon was 17th and Kahne was 20th. Light sprinkles were reported in the area, and several laps later, Kahne spun slightly off course. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet returned to racing action, following his Hendrick Motorsports teammates. The caution flag was waved with 26 laps to go for another spin on the course. During the yellow flag, the pace car started using its windshield wipers.

Earnhardt, running seventh in the No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet, led his Hendrick Motorsports teammates. Johnson was running ninth, Gordon in 17th and Kahne in 27th. Gordon maintained position with Gustafson’s advice – save fuel—- ringing in his ears. 

With 22 laps left on the board, the field went back to green-flag racing. Earnhardt and Johnson held steady in the top 10, while Gordon worked on cracking the top 15 and Kahne moved two spots into 25th. Three laps later, the caution flag was thrown for a spin on the track.

Johnson lined up seventh and Earnhardt was 10th for the restart with 16 laps to go. Within the first lap, Earnhardt slipped one spot into 11th, while Johnson continually worked his way past the competition. With 10 laps to go, Johnson was running fifth in No. 48 Lowe’s Cortez Silver Chevrolet; Earnhardt was running 10th, Gordon in 15th and Kahne in 18th. 

Earnhardt slipped three laps later, spinning off course in Turn 5 and dropping through the field. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet returned to the track in 22nd and headed for pit road. Earnhardt’s car was clean – no severe damage – but his top 10 hopes were dashed. Earnhardt finished 28th. 

“I just got in the corner and made a mistake,” said Earnhardt, who now ranks fourth in the driver standings. “That was pretty much all there was to it. My tires were flat-spotted, and then I got back on the track, and there was oil on the track from somebody. You couldn’t see it, but it was everywhere.”

Gordon and Kahne improved their running position after Earnhardt’s mishap. Gordon cracked the top 10 with three laps to go, but was involved in a last-lap incident and finished 21st.

“There was oil all over the racetrack,” Gordon said. “I had no idea there was oil out there. I knew there was all kind of havoc happening all around, but it was a great effort by our (No. 24) Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet. But I’m pretty bummed right now. I thought our car was a lot better than that. We weren’t good on restarts, but man did it come on. We were just passing cars right and left, and I was having a blast.”

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