RICHMOND, Va. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. recorded his second runner-up finish of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season and was joined inside the top 10 on Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway by his teammates Kasey Kahne (fifth) and Jimmie Johnson (sixth). Jeff Gordon sustained an early tire issue and finished 23rd.
Earnhardt now ranks second in the driver standings and trails leader Greg Biffle by five points. Johnson ranks sixth, Gordon is 17th and Kahne sits in 23rd nine races into the season.
When the green flag first dropped Saturday night at Richmond, Gordon, Kahne and Earnhardt rolled off the grid inside the top 10. Johnson, meanwhile, lined up 27th and was the biggest mover early in the race, improving 10 spots by Lap 37.
When the competition caution flag was waved on Lap 51, the Hendrick Motorsports teammates hit pit road for tires, fuel and adjustments. Shortly after the restart, Gordon’s promising run was stalled when he cut a tire and sustained damage to his right-rear quarter panel from another competitor. The driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet headed for pit road immediately so his team could address the contact. Gordon returned to the track running 24th.
Meanwhile, Johnson continued his forward charge and cracked the top 10 by Lap 96. Twenty-two laps later, the field began pitting during the second caution period of the night. Johnson’s No. 48 team pulled off an efficient stop, and he improved to run fifth, while Earnhardt improved three spots on pit road and moved into the seventh position.
When the field restarted on Lap 122, Johnson, Earnhardt and Kahne remained inside the top 10, which is where they would spend the majority of the race.
At the halfway point, Earnhardt encountered a slight setback on pit road when he was blocked from exiting by the competitor ahead of him. Earnhardt returned to the track running 15th behind Johnson (fourth) and Kahne (fifth) on Lap 211.
Eighteen laps later, the yellow flag was waved for debris and crew members climbed atop the pit road wall for stops. Johnson, who led his Hendrick Motorsports teammates onto pit road in third, asked his team to improve the balance of his car during the stop. The No. 48 team added air in the right-rear tire and sent Johnson back onto the track. With tires, fuel and other adjustments, Johnson and Kahne both picked up one spot on pit road to run second and fourth, respectively for the restart.
By Lap 264, Gordon had improved to run four seconds behind the Lucky Dog position. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet continued to fight for position.
As the race unfolded, pit strategy became an even more important focal point of the mostly event. Johnson’s team opted to pit with 90 laps left in the race. As he hit pit road, the caution flag was waved after a competitor hit the wall in Turns 3 and 4. Johnson’s crew worked quickly and sent the No. 48 Chevrolet back onto the track just in time to beat the leader (then Carl Edwards). Unfortunately, during the stop, a tire was left unattended, and as a result, Johnson was sent to the rear of the field for the ensuing restart on Lap 317.
“We had a couple little incidents there, but things happen – it’s racing,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately we had a tire get away from us. But the good news is we had a really fast race car, and this track has been hit or miss for us. To have a car that was that strong and passed that many cars all night long, I’m proud of the effort.”
Johnson again climbed through the field, rallying to run 12th with 76 laps to go as Kahne and Earnhardt battled for the fifth. With 46 laps to go, Kahne drove his No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet by Earnhardt and improved to run third when debris in Turn 2 prompted NASCAR to issue the fifth caution flag of the night. With 13 laps to go, Kahne and Earnhardt hit pit road for final adjustments.
Both teammates took four tires, fuel and adjustments before racing back onto the track side-by side. Earnhardt was credited with third for the restart right next to his teammate with nine laps to go. On the restart, Earnhardt followed then-leader Kyle Busch across the stripe and into second. The driver of the No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet fiercely tracked Busch as the laps ticked off at the .75-mile racetrack, and ultimately held on for the runner-up finish. His teammates Kahne and Johnson followed in fifth and sixth, respectively. Gordon crossed the stripe 23rd.
“I didn’t have any brakes getting into the corner,” Earnhardt said. “It got real loose locking the rear up. I want to thank National Guard and Diet Mountain Dew. My team had great stops; we gained a lot of spots on pit road.”
Hendrick Motorsports next will race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway on Sunday, May 6. Johnson is the defending race winner at the 2.66-mile superspeedway.