Hendrick Motorsports struggles again at Daytona

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NASCAR's super team didn't exactly get off to a super start. Again. None of Hendrick Motorsport's drivers - Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin - were a major factor at Daytona for the second straight year. No Hendrick car placed in the top 10, with Gordon's 13th-place the best of the bunch. Martin faded from the outside pole to 16th, Earnhardt was 27th and three-time defending series champion Johnson was 31st. It wasn't exactly the performance expected out of NASCAR's highest-profile team. Gordon led 14 laps during the middle of the race before tire problems forced him to pit. He dropped all the way to 32nd before scrambling back into the top 15 but ran out of time. Martin, a sentimental favorite after a couple of near-misses in the 500, never got going. He led one lap but floated between fifth and 13th for long stretches before dropping back late, making him 0-for-25 in the season-opener. Earnhardt had a good car but was his own worst enemy. He missed his pit stall during one caution and incurred a penalty for parking over the stall boundary during another. His day got even worse when he later started a nine-car pile-up after getting into it with Brian Vickers. Johnson narrowly avoided disaster during the big wreck, but his No. 48 car spent almost the entire day outside the top 10.

Backup boys

Who needs a good qualifying run? Some of the seven drivers sent to the rear of the field at the start of the race after deciding to go to backup cars for the 500 hardly seemed bothered by the demotion. Winner Matt Kenseth and second-place finisher Kevin Harvick had little trouble picking their way through the field. Kenseth abandoned the car he used in Thursday's qualifying run in favor of one that handled better. It certainly looked seemed that way when he zipped to the front with a couple of laps to go in the rain-shortened race. Tony Stewart finished eighth in a backup car he was forced to go to after colliding with Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Ryan Newman during practice Saturday. Newman, the defending champion, ended a miserable week with a 36th-place finish. John Andretti (19th), Sam Hornish Jr. (32nd) and Speed (35th) struggled to keep up in their backups.

Polesitter falters

Polesitter Martin Truex Jr. dropped to the track apron on the pace lap. Maybe that should have been a sign of things to come. Although Truex fixed his pre-race problem, he never proved to be a factor in the Daytona 500. He was in the middle of the pack much of the day but took advantage of a nine-car crash late to move up a few spots. Truex finished 11th and extended the Daytona 500 pole-sitter's streak to nine years without winning the race. "We did not handle well in the beginning," Truex said. "We adjusted on it, and it came to life once the sun went down. ... It's not a top-10, but to come out of Daytona in one piece is just as good." The last pole-sitter to win the 500 was Dale Jarrett in 2000. The pole-sitter hasn't finished higher than fifth since.

Late sellout

The grandstands along the backstretch were full when the green flag dropped thanks to a late surge in ticket sales the made the race a sellout. Barely. Officials were so concerned about having empty seats during NASCAR's premier event that prices for select tickets were slashed in the days leading up to the race. The strategy appeared to work, though there were still plenty of scalpers with good seats available surrounding the track in the hours before the race. Matt Kenseth's win in his No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford is good news for fans interested in heading to the March 8 Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The track's offering $95 tickets for $17 - matching the number of the car that won the 500. A similar plan a year ago was limited to the first 1,000 tickets sold. This year's plan will be for any fan who wants to pick up tickets so long as they do it by Tuesday afternoon.

Tebow time

Tom Cruise may be one of the most famous movie stars in the world, but even he can't outshine Tim Tebow. The University of Florida quarterback and 2007 Heisman Trophy winner received a loud ovation while being introduced during the driver's meeting a couple of hours before the Daytona 500. Tebow, his right arm minus the sling he wore following shoulder surgery last month, stood up and made a quick wave to the crowded hall before returning to his seat next to current South Carolina and former Florida coach Steve Spurrier. Cruise was among a handful of celebrities - including Academy Award winning actor Gene Hackman and singer Gavin DeGraw - and officials such as Florida Gov. Charlie Crist who mingled with NASCAR's leaders before the season-opening race. New York Jets coach Rex Ryan and Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Joey Galloway were also in attendance; Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano's seat was vacant. The biggest cheers, however, were reserved Raymond Parks, considered "The Godfather of NASCAR." Parks was the first real car owner for the fledgling series in late 1940s, winning the Modified Series championship in 1948 and the Strictly Stock (now Cup) series in 1949 with driver Red Byron.

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