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Hendrick Motorsports team has good and bad day at Fontana

Dale Earnhardt Jr. uses wise pit management to finish in third place. Jimmie Johnson gambles to finish 10th. Jeff Gordon, 26th, is hindered by penalties. Kasey Kahne, 14th, has his best finish of the year.

March 25, 2012|By John Cherwa
  • Crew member Brad Pickens tries to keep the gas can in the pit box as Jeff Gordon leaves a pit stop during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
Crew member Brad Pickens tries to keep the gas can in the pit box as Jeff Gordon… (Nigel Kinrade / Autostock…)

It was one of those crazy, hard-to-figure-out Sundays for the Hendrick Motorsports team at the Auto Club 400 in Fontana.

The literati of the NASCAR crowd might even say it was the best of times, it was the … no, let's stick to racing.

So, the star of the Hendrick team on Sunday was Dale Earnhardt, Jr., whose wise pit management allowed him to steal a third-place finish. He employed a strategy called short pitting, where he comes in earlier than he might otherwise for fresh tires to gain track position when everyone else is running on slower tires. It can work if your car isn't as fast as the leaders.

And, he was counting on the rain.

"We had been watching the weather all day," Earnhardt said. "We felt certain if it started to rain it wasn't going to stop. We made the right choice by staying out and building ourselves into the top three."

It was Earnhardt's second top-five finish and third top-10. He moved up from sixth to third in the points standings with a long way to go. But, the statistic that dogs him advanced by one number. He hasn't won a race in the last 134 tries.

"We're competitive and I'm happy with the direction we're going," Earnhardt said.

As for the lucky, you can find Jimmie Johnson. He came into the pits just as the race went to its only yellow to take on four tires. When he came back on the track his car was smoking. He stayed out there gambling that the rain wasn't going to stop.

If the race would have resumed he would have had to come back to the pits to get his car fixed and most assuredly cost him his 10th-place finish.

"I don't really know what caused it [a ruptured oil line]," Johnson said.

Now for the bad. Jeff Gordon still can't catch a break. He was running a strong fifth when he came in for a routine pit stop on lap 107. As he exited his pit, the gas can remained lodged in the car. That's a penalty and he was assessed a "stop and go" where he has to come back to pit road for a quick stop and then back on the track.

Then on lap 126 Gordon was assessed another penalty when his crew let a tire get away and rolled past the center of pit road. He had to go to the back of the pack for that one.

Gordon finished a woeful 26th.

And finally, there was Kasey Kahne, who had his best finish of the year finishing 14th after starting fifth.

Hamlin's costly decision

As the caution flag came out on lap 125, Denny Hamlin decided to go to pit road and give up his position in second place. It was a decision that gave him an 11th-place finish.

"This is the strategy we made," Hamlin explained. "We were planning on the race going back to green. If it doesn't we're going to lose some spots. If we stay out there, then we're going to be behind all the cars that pitted. Then your chances of winning decreases greatly. You either give up a few spots if it finishes, or you lose a chance to win in the grand scheme of things."

It's a strategy Earnhardt indirectly questioned.

"I was surprised that some guys came down pit road and gave up track position," he said.

Kyle Busch's day

Kyle Busch started second and finished second, leading 80 laps along the way. Not a bad day for someone who was 16th in the points race. (He's 14th now.)

"Yeah, when you're the leader, [the other drivers] are not very courteous," Busch said. "They don't give you much room. They try and take away your air. And my car wasn't great in traffic anyway.

"[Tony] Stewart was better in traffic. He had to deal with that most of the day. … Overall, I'm glad the rains came when they did, as heavy as they were. We're glad we're able to go home with a second-place finish."

john.cherwa@latimes.com

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