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Earnhardt, Johnson, Gordon finish in top seven at Darlington

By Jessica Ruffin

DARLINGTON, S.C.—After two late-race cautions, Dale Earnhardt Jr. lined up first for the second and ultimately final green-white-checkered attempt on Sunday at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. The driver of the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet SS held onto the top position momentarily, but was unable to maintain the lead. Earnhardt finished second, giving the No. 88 team its third runner-up result of the season. Earnhardt’s second-place finish also marked his best Cup career showing at the track Too Tough to Tame.

Earnhardt’s teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon joined him in the top seven, finishing third and seventh, respectively. Kasey Kahne encountered a late-race incident and was scored 37th.

Here’s a look how Hendrick Motorsports drivers fared at the track Too Tough to Tame.

KASEY KAHNE, DRIVER OF THE NO. 5 GREAT CLIPS CHEVROLET SS
FINISHED:
37th
STANDINGS: 23rd
RECAP: Kahne started 22nd at Darlington Raceway and climbed five positions by Lap 7.  The driver of the No. 5 Great Clips Chevrolet SS brought the field three-wide to seize the 13th position at Lap 49. Crew chief Kenny Francis decided upon a two-tire pit stop at Lap 60, allowing Kahne to restart from the third position. Kahne continued to race in the top 10 and was running sixth by Lap 140. One lap later, he had cracked the top five, running behind teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Kahne was forced to make his green-flag pit stop early at Lap 174 due to a fuel issue during the last stop. Kahne’s early stop allowed him to take the lead for the first time that day at Lap 184. He restarted from the fourth position at Lap 223, with all three of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates behind him. By Lap 236, Kahne was riding the fifth position. Kahne told Francis that he was experiencing a loose handling condition and came onto pit road at Lap 247 for fuel, four tires and a chassis adjustment. Despite the adjustments, Kahne continued to experience car issues and had slipped to 13th with 80 laps to go. He was sidelined by a late-race incident and was scored 37th.

JEFF GORDON, DRIVER OF THE NO. 24 DRIVE TO END HUNGER CHEVROLET SS
FINISHED: Seventh
STANDINGS: First
RECAP: Jeff Gordon rolled off the grid ninth at Darlington Raceway and had plenty of momentum from the start. The driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet SS moved into the sixth position by Lap 10, before cracking the top five by Lap 13. By Lap 27, Gordon had broken into the top three. Gordon took the lead at Lap 38, but was unable to maintain it after the race’s first restart at Lap 47 and fell back to third. But that didn’t stop the seven-time Darlington winner, as he moved into second by Lap 51. Crew chief Alan Gustafson opted for a four-tire change during the second yellow-flag pit stop at Lap 60. The fresh set of tires allowed Gordon to climb back into the top three by Lap 75.  By Lap 115, he was running second and continued to race in the top five. Gordon made a yellow-flag pit stop at Lap 233 for fuel, tires and an adjustment, causing him to restart from the fourth position. By Lap 248, Gordon had made his way back to the runner-up position before pitting at Lap 249. Gordon’s best restart of the night came at Lap 280, when he moved up to the fourth position. By Lap 292, Gordon was back in the second position, but slipped to fifth by Lap 327. He finished seventh at the track Too Tough to Tame.

JIMMIE JOHNSON, DRIVER OF THE NO. 48 KOBALT TOOLS CHEVROLET SS
FINISHED: Third
STANDINGS: Fifth
RECAP: Jimmie Johnson lined up 26th on Sunday at the track Too Tough to Tame and almost immediately reported tightness in his No. 48 Kobalt Tools Chevrolet SS. The three-time Darlington winner was undaunted, moving into the 23rd position by Lap 32. Crew chief Chad Knaus made several adjustments to Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy SS under caution at Lap 42 and called Johnson back onto pit road minutes later for more changes. The adjustments seemed to help, as Johnson propelled his Chevy SS from 29th to 17th by Lap 81. He cracked the top 10 by Lap 113, putting all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers in top 10 at that point in the race. Johnson continued to maneuver through traffic, moving into ninth by Lap 139. Johnson joined his Hendrick Motorsports teammates in the top five at Lap 199, as he moved into the fifth position. By Lap 257, Johnson was running sixth and cracked the top five again with 82 laps to go. He continued his forward march, moving to fourth by Lap 287, before seizing the runner-up position at Lap 323. The caution flag was waved at Lap 358, causing Johnson to come onto pit road for a two-tire stop. He restarted from the top position at Lap 363. The caution flag was waved again at Lap 365, pushing Johnson back to third for the final restart, where he finished at the track Too Tough to Tame.

DALE EARNHARDT JR., DRIVER OF THE NO. 88 NATIONAL GUARD CHEVROLET SS
FINISHED: Second
STANDINGS: Fourth
RECAP: Dale Earnhardt Jr. started 14th at the track Too Tough to Tame and wasted no time in his forward march. The driver of the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet SS had climbed two positions in the first 10 laps.  By Lap 19, he had cracked the top 10 and was credited as the race’s biggest mover when measured at Lap 20, with seven increased positions. Earnhardt was running sixth by Lap 32 and cracked the top three at Lap 53. Crew chief Steve Letarte opted for a four-tire change at the second yellow-flag pit stop on Lap 60, which gave Earnhardt what he needed to climb into the fourth position by Lap 77. He restarted from the third position at Lap 208, but told crew chief Steve Letarte that he thought he may have a loose wheel, causing him to slip to fifth by Lap 210. Letarte called Earnhardt onto pit road at Lap 248 for fuel, four tires and a chassis adjustment. The efficient pit stop allowed Earnhardt to gain one position for the restart and his momentum continued from there. He moved into third at Lap 252 almost immediately after the restart.  At Lap 280, Earnhardt seized the runner-up position and continued to race in the top five. By Lap 323, he was running third. He lined up first for the final restart of the night, but was unable to hold onto the lead and finished second.

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