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AUTO CLUB 500 NOTES

Dale Earnhardt's weekend is no picnic

Things go from bad to worse for the popular driver, who finishes 39th after his car is knocked out with 45 laps remaining because of engine trouble.

February 23, 2009|Jim Peltz

This is not how Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his army of fans hoped his NASCAR Sprint Cup season would start.

NASCAR's most popular driver had a dismal weekend in Fontana after he helped spark a huge wreck in the Daytona 500 a week earlier.

Earnhardt qualified 35th for the Auto Club 500 and then, in practice, had his transmission pop out of gear. That prompted his Hendrick Motorsports crew to change the transmission before the race, which required that he start in the rear of the 43-car field.

Earnhardt initially moved his No. 88 Chevrolet into the top 15 at Auto Club Speedway, but later the car suffered engine problems -- a rare event for a Hendrick car -- and finally limped to the garage with 45 laps still remaining. He finished 39th.

"We were sitting there looking at maybe driving in the top 10," Earnhardt said.

Where's Carl?

Carl Edwards, who won a series-high nine races last year, also is off to a sluggish start.

Edwards, a teammate of race winner Matt Kenseth at Roush Fenway Racing, finished seventh Sunday night after starting 25th but never challenging for the lead.

The effort came a week after Edwards, who drives the No. 99 Ford, finished 18th in the Daytona 500. Although it's early in the season, he's ninth in points.

"It's not what we wanted, but it's OK," he said, adding that his car was "terrible" in practice Saturday before his crew made adjustments.

Harvick's streak

When an accident sent Kevin Harvick into the wall, it ended his streak of 81 consecutive races completed, the longest in Cup history. He finished 38th.

"The motor blew up and I just got in my own oil going in the corner," said the Bakersfield native who drives the No. 29 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.

Gilliland's ride

After losing his Cup ride of the last two years, David Gilliland of Riverside made the race with a new team but struggled all night.

He qualified 32nd in a Chevrolet for TRG Motorsports and finished 33rd.

Gilliland spent the last two seasons driving for Yates Racing, where he had four top-10 finishes without a victory in 87 starts.

He was dropped from that team before this season because of a lack of sponsorship.

--

james.peltz@latimes.com

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