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Hendrick stars involved in big wreck at Daytona

- Associated Press - Sunday, February 20, 2011

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. (AP) - Hendrick Motorsports had a rough start to the Daytona 500.

Three of the team's four cars, including five-time defending Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, were involved in a 14-car wreck early in the 500-mile race Sunday.

Four-time series champ Jeff Gordon, who started on the front row, and veteran Mark Martin also sustained damage in the melee.

The fourth Hendrick entry, fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., avoided the mess and was running with the leaders. His teammates weren't as fortunate.

Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet was crumpled front and back, forcing the team to the garage area for major repairs. He returned to the race 30 laps down, essentially running for points while extending his winless streak to 66 races.

"It doesn't really matter at this point," Gordon said. "Our chances of winning the Daytona 500 are over. That's the disappointing part."

Johnson's No. 48 car also needed lengthy repairs. He returned to the track 18 laps down. Martin had fewer issues. His team worked on his No. 5 car on pit road. Still, Martin fell three laps behind the leaders and looked like he would extended his winless streak in the Daytona 500.

But Martin made a strong comeback. He took advantage of NASCAR's free-pass rule to get back on the lead lap and was running in the top 10 with about 50 laps to go.

Gordon, meanwhile, questioned the aggressiveness of his fellow drivers, saying the two-car tandems that have become the norm during Speedweeks were dicier than expected at nearly 200 mph.

"What I don't quite understand is why guys are doing it three-wide, three-deep running for 28th," Gordon said. "They need to let it thin out a little. As soon as it thins out, then go to it, and it can be very safe and pretty harm-free.

"But you see them, and they're pushing and shoving up the middle down the back straightaway, and you're like, 'What are they doing?'"

Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip started the accident by running into the back of teammate David Reutimann. Waltrip owns the team. Reutimann spun sideways and collected several cars in his wake, including several favorites.

"You're going to see a lot more of what we just saw," Gordon predicted.

The crash ended an otherwise solid Speedweeks for Hendrick Motorsports. Earnhardt and Gordon were on the front row, a promising start after team owner Rick Hendrick made significant changes to his organization in the offseason.

Even though Johnson won his fifth consecutive championship, Hendrick felt his team fell way behind in 2010. Gordon, Martin and Earnhardt Jr. were winless.

The mediocre results came a year after Johnson, Martin and Gordon gave Hendrick an unprecedented sweep of the top three spots in the final points standings.

So Hendrick responded by moving everyone except Johnson and longtime crew chief Chad Knaus.

Earnhardt, who has just one victory in three seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, was paired with Gordon's crew chief, Steve Letarte. Earnhardt moved into the same shop as Johnson and Knaus, and Hendrick believes Letarte's strong personality will help rebuild the waning confidence of NASCAR's most popular driver.

Gordon was teamed with Martin's crew chief, Alan Gustafson.

Martin switched to Earnhardt's crew chief, Lance McGrew.

Johnson's team got an adjustment, too. Hendrick shook up Johnson's entire pit crew in hopes of fixing the most noticeable chink in the defending champ's armor.

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