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Earnhardt third, Johnson 12th at Martinsville

Earnhardt third, Johnson 12th at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. improved to second in the driver standings after finishing third on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. The driver of the No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet survived a late-race incident that took his Hendrick Motorsports teammates out of contention for the organization’s 200th NASCAR Sprint Cup victory.

Jimmie Johnson held on to finish 12th, while Jeff Gordon took 14th. Kasey Kahne, who sustained an engine issue just past the midway point of the race, was scored 38th.

Sunday’s race began in dramatic fashion for Hendrick Motorsports, which recorded its first Cup victory at the Martinsville paper-clip on April 29, 1984. Then, it was Geoff Bodine who drove the No. 5 Chevrolet to Victory Lane.

But on Sunday, all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers were contenders. Kahne opened the race from the pole position – his second of the season. Gordon inherited the lead by Lap 23 in his No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, and by Lap 65, all four drivers were racing inside the top 11.

Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet appeared to grow stronger as the event unfolded, but he was penalized during the first caution period on Lap 102 when he was clocked too fast exiting pit road. During the stops, Gordon maintained his presence on the front row, while Kahne, the race’s pole sitter, held steady in third. Earnhardt was running seventh, and Johnson restarted in 21st.

Within 123 laps, Johnson had returned to the top 10. He was running 10th, while Gordon, Earnhardt and Kahne were one-two-three. The Martinsville crowd roared six laps later when Earnhardt slipped by Gordon for the lead.

Green-flag pit stops began as the race approached the halfway point, and Kahne gave up his third-place position to stop for four tires and fuel. His Hendrick Motorsports teammates Earnhardt and Gordon, running first and second, respectively at the time, stopped during the ensuing laps. Both drivers took four tires and fuel and returned to the track. Gordon, thanks to solid pit box position, secured the second spot, and Earnhardt followed in third.

Just past the halfway point, Kahne radioed an engine issue to his team and reported to the garage. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet returned the short track, but on Lap 315 retreated one final time to the garage after spinning. Kahne, who was scored with the 38th-place finish, climbed onto the No. 24 pit box afterward to watch his Hendrick Motorsports teammates contend for the 200th Cup victory.

“We had a great Chevy,” Kahne said afterward. “Really fast and the best I had ever been here.  Engine was running great, and we were just battling a little loose-handling condition. We needed another pit stop to get that right, and then we could battle with Jeff (Gordon).  It was fun driving, and we had a small engine problem that turned into a big one on the backstretch and just shut off and I had oil on my tires when I hit pit road.  I just didn’t want to oil the whole surface for all the guys out there so I just shot to the pits and it went spinning and it wasn’t a big deal because I didn’t hit anything luckily.”

From the No. 24 pit box, Kahne watched the final laps unfold. During a restart on Lap 369, Gordon lined up on the front row with Johnson in third and Earnhardt in ninth. Gordon couldn’t hold off Denny Hamlin and slipped into second-place before succumbing to Johnson in third.

With his No. 48 Chevrolet strengthening, Johnson pressured Hamlin heavily and finally took the lead with 107 laps to go. Gordon followed his teammate in the second spot. Under green-flag conditions, Earnhardt improved to third with 35 laps to go, putting the Hendrick teammates one-two-three for the grand finale.

With 17 laps to go, crew chiefs Alan Gustafson and Steve Letarte radioed to their drivers they should start saving fuel. Letarte instructed Earnhardt that he might be two laps shy. With three laps to go, the caution flag was thrown for a stalled car on the racetrack. Gordon and Johnson forwent pit stops in favor of track position, but were encouraged to save fuel.

Gordon and Johnson, who have a combined 13 wins at the short track, lined up for the restart on the front row. Excitement was high as the green flag dropped, but almost immediately the hopes for the 200th win were dashed as the third- and fourth-place cars running on fresher tires pressured the Hendrick duo. The collection of cars triggered a multi-car incident, and both Gordon and Johnson were spun out.

“It’s short track racing,” said Johnson, who ranks 10th in the driver standings. “We certainly wish it hadn’t of happened, but there’s nothing we can do about it now. We’ll take some decent points from today. I really thought we had a chance to get Rick (Hendrick’s) 200th win today.”

“I didn’t get the best restart, so when (Clint Bowyer) first shoved his nose down there, I thought OK we’ll make it work,” said Gordon, who led a race-high 328 laps and ranks 21st in the driver standings. “But he came through there with so much speed, I had nowhere to go, and Jimmie (Johnson) had nowhere to go. I didn’t want to see that last caution. We had such a great battle going with the (No.) 48, and he’s so tough here.

“To be able to get up beside him, I felt like I had the position to get the lead. It was going to be an interesting race. But that’s just the way our year has been going. It can’t go like this forever. We’re going to keep bringing cars like that (No. 24) Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet right there, and we’ll be OK.”

During the second attempt, Earnhardt lined up third. He struggled to keep the pace but held on for the third-place finish, while Johnson took 12th and Gordon finished 14th. Kahne was scored 38th.