FONTANA, Calif. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. took third, while Jimmie Johnson was scored 10th after NASCAR officials opted to halt racing action for rain Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. Kasey Kahne was scored 14th, while Jeff Gordon recorded 26th.
Hendrick Motorsports opened Sunday’s race on a positive note with all four drivers running inside the top 13 within the first 30 laps. Johnson improved five spots to run fifth, while Gordon was the biggest mover, catapulting from his 23rd starting spot to eighth.
Earnhardt climbed three spots into 10th, and Kahne was 13th.
Clouds gathered in the sky as the race progressed under green-flag conditions, and teams had very little time to address handling issues on pit road. On Lap 34, Kahne hit the pits and reported to his team that the No. 5 Quaker State Chevrolet was experiencing a loose-handling condition in the right-rear.
The Hendrick teammates did what they could under green-flag conditions on pit road. Prior to pitting on Sunday, Gordon and Johnson even led two laps apiece.
But a slight snafu on a pit stop at the halfway point cost Gordon his running position. During the stop, the team was penalized for taking equipment out of the pit box, and Gordon returned to the track running 19th. The driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet continued to post times as fast as the leader, and worked feverishly to make up the position as the race unfolded.
The first caution flag of the race was thrown on Lap 124 for rain in Turn 3, and that yellow flag was quickly turned into a red one a couple laps later, as NASCAR officials halted racing on the two-mile oval. With their cars under covers, Earnhardt was scored third, Johnson 10th, Kahne 14th and Gordon 26th.
The timing of the caution was somewhat of a gift for Johnson, who experienced a car issue as NASCAR was pulling out the red flag. The driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s/Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet pitted during the early part of the caution for fresh tires, fuel and a chassis adjustment. But upon returning to the Fontana track, he started losing positions as the car began to emit smoke.
“We’re not exactly sure what happened,” said Johnson, who now ranks ninth in the standings. “Either a piece of debris hit the oil line, just hooked the line and snagged it. We clipped an artery basically. Bottom line, it’s losing blood fast.
“I don’t know what really caused it yet. Just a wild change of events because when I came to pit road and took four tires I wanted it to dry up real quick. Now I’m hoping it will rain.”
The rain wasn’t a welcome sign for Earnhardt, who was anxious to return to the track and see what his No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet could do. By Lap 104, the No. 88 team had the car dialed in, and Earnhardt was pleased with the way it was handling.
“I was happy,” said Earnhardt, who now ranks third in the standings. “The car was fast. We had a great car in practice. Right at the end of practice, I told the guys this car was really good, and the (No. 88) Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet was great from the drop of the green (flag). We had great pit strategy all day.”
The Sprint Cup Series next will race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway on Sunday, April 1.