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Gordon third, Johnson fourth at Bristol

Gordon third, Johnson fourth at Bristol

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson finished inside the top four during Saturday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Bristol Motor Speedway, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line 16th. Mark Martin was scored with the 38th-place finish.

With the fourth-place finish, Johnson, the five-time defending champion, locks up his spot inside the upcoming Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Gordon lined up his No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet from the fourth position and held steady among the leaders for the majority of the race. Gordon led a race-high 206 laps and was in a position to pick up his sixth career victory at the short track when the caution flag was issued with just 87 laps to go. Despite an efficient four-tire stop, Gordon lost spots on pit road and wound up battling Johnson inside the top five on the ensuing restart. Gordon finished third.

“Man, me and Matt (Kenseth) and Jimmie (Johnson) fought for third and fourth position, and we used up a lot of our stuff,” Gordon said. “Brad (Keselowski, race winner) was able to go out there and cruise.

“We just didn’t get it done on the racetrack. We had a great battle, heck of a race car, led a lot of laps. Brad did a great job, and Matt did a great job to hold me off there. We had a great Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, I’m proud of our guys, and I can’t wait to go to Atlanta (Motor Speedway).”

Johnson, who quickly improved from his 13th-starting spot, ran among the top five and led 76 laps early in the race. He maintained his position within the top 10 and battled with Gordon and Kenseth in the closing laps to finish fourth. He is tied with Kyle Busch for first in points, and ranks second currently in the standings.

“We had a very solid night all night long,” Johnson said. “I’m just proud of the effort and the way we’ve been building all season long to get ourselves ready for the Chase (for the NASCAR Sprint Cup). We’re getting close.

“Very excited to be locked up there with Kyle (Busch) in the points. We’ll go to these next two (races) and see if we can’t get the W.”

Earnhardt, driver of the No. 88 AMP Energy/Bristol 50th Anniversary/National Guard Chevrolet, remains ninth in the standings after finishing Saturday’s race in 16th. There are two races before the final field is set for the 2011 Chase. During Saturday’s race, Earnhardt improved from his 22nd starting spot to run inside the top 15 as his team worked out a handling issue on the No. 88 Chevy.

“Well, we struggled all night, really, trying to get a good car," Earnhardt said. "Trying to get a good car; trying to get the car to drive. We just couldn’t really get a good balance all night. The balance was decent on the car, but we were just slow, we didn’t have enough grip. Just sliding around a whole lot. Thankful to finish where we finished.”

Martin lined up his No. 5 Farmers Insurance/ Chevrolet in the fifth position, but struggled to maintain that track position. On Lap 360, though, Martin was racing for position when he slipped up the racetrack and made contact with the No. 83. Martin’s No. 5 Chevrolet ricocheted off the infield wall, and his team worked hard to repair the damage. Martin finished 38th and now ranks 19th in the standings. He is 10th in the wild card standings, 77 points outside of 10th-place.

“I just want to thank all my crew guys, they gave me a really good race car tonight," Martin said. "Our Farmers Insurance Chevrolet was better than we looked out there. We got stuck in the field without track position and tried to make our way back through. Unfortunately, when we were making our come back, we got tagged from behind. Once you make contact with that inside wall, it is hard to recover from. Good job by all the guys tonight and we’ll just go on from here.”