- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2008

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — With four of the top nine starting positions in yesterday’s Daytona 500 and three drivers — Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — who were former winners, the prospect of Hendrick Motorsports dominating was a decent bet.

Or not.

Earnhardt Jr. was the only Hendrick car to survive the race unscathed and finish in the top 25 as Dodge, led by Ryan Newman’s win, claimed six of the top eight spots. Earnhardt Jr. was ninth, Johnson 27th, Casey Mears 35th and Gordon 39th.

Mears, the least heralded off the Hendrick drivers, was having a great race until he crashed while running third with five laps remaining.

“Just one of those deals,” Mears said of the crash. “I heard clear, looked in my mirror and didn’t see anybody, so I went ahead and turned up because I had a run. It was too late. Just very disappointing because we had such a great opportunity to win.”

Earnhardt Jr. had a shifter stick problem and then a bigger problem — the No. 88 couldn’t match Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart in the horsepower department.

“We obviously didn’t have [a strong] car for most of the day,” Earnhardt Jr. “We struggled trying to go from good to great. We got pretty good near the end of the race, but I made a lot of poor choices where to take my runs and what to do with them.”

Johnson was running midpack when he got loose coming out of turn 2 on lap 176 and was tapped by Sam Hornish Jr. and Denny Hamlin.

“I thought we were going to make it without getting hit really hard, but we had a little bit of contact,” Johnson said. “We had lost track position early in the day, and we were fighting to get it back all day.”

Gordon experienced suspension problems with 47 laps remaining.

“We didn’t understand what was happening,” Gordon said. “We started wearing the right front tire out. I knew something must be wrong, so we came in, and sure enough, we had a failure. … We’ve been working hard at the shop to prevent this kind of thing from happening.”

Career race I

Toyota had its best race since returning to the Sprint Cup Series last year. Tony Stewart finished second, and Kyle Busch tied the previous top finish (by Dave Blaney last year in Talladega) by ending up third.

Busch led a race-high 86 laps, and Toyota teammate Hamlin led 32 laps. Toyota led 138 in the 200-lap race.

“We had the dominant car all day long,” Busch said. “I could hold it wide open on every single lap of the race. It was just frustrating to come home fourth, but that’s a part of the Daytona 500 when you run as good as we had all day long.”

Said Kyle’s brother, Kurt Busch, the runner-up: “The Gibbs cars were quick all week and the class of the field tonight. The Gibbs guys feel dejected. They did their homework, they had fast cars and they had the strength you need to win.”

Career race II

Reed Sorenson had a fifth-place showing in the 500, the conclusion of a strong Speedweeks for the third-year Sprint Cup driver.

“It was pretty fun at the end,” he said. “We had a lot more grip at the end, got two- and three-wide and pushed each other really hard. We tried to keep an eye on the leaders early, and if we could still see them, we were happy.”

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