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Riding with Junior: Darlington
For the second consecutive week, the NASCAR Nextel Cup race was delayed one day by rain, but the wait did nothing to stop the dominance of Hendrick Motorsports as Jeff Gordon won Sunday's Dodge Avenger 500 at Darlington Raceway. Hendrick teams have now won eight of the last nine Nextel Cup races, including all five Car of Tomorrow events. Denny Hamlin finished second while Gordon's teammate Jimmie Johnson finished third. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 8 Budweiser team had one of the fastest cars all afternoon, finishing eighth. This is their fourth top-10 tally of the season and solidifies the 12th-place position in the Nextel Cup standings.
Key MomentsDale Jr., starting 21st, began the race like a NASA rocket shot from Cape Canaveral, climbing into the top-10 by lap 25 and then into the top-five only a dozen laps later. As the afternoon temperatures climbed and more rubber was laid-down on the aged Darlington track surface, Dale Jr. remained in the top-10 but wasn't able to continue his torrid pace through the mid-stages of the 500-mile marathon. Dropping as far back as 15th on lap 189, the Bud team continued to adjust the car, and Dale Jr. began climbing up the scoring pylon once again. Dale Jr. was running sixth when a caution period came out on lap 344, and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. opted to stay on the track without stopping for fresh tires. This placed the No. 8 in the third position for the restart on lap 348 - but a subsequent yellow flag less than five laps later allowed the cars with fresher tires to close, and Junior hung on in the final laps for an eighth-place finish. This is the sixth time in the last seven starts that Dale Jr. has finished 11th or better at the egg-shaped South Carolina track.
Dale Jr. Quotes"I had fun and I want to really thank my guys. They gave me a great car today - especially early on. This group is a great bunch of guys and I wanted to drive as hard as I could to repay them for their support and loyalty. It was a helluva fast race car, and they deserve a big thanks for the job they did. We were great in the first 50 laps but as the rubber got laid down on the track we began to struggle with the car. They worked hard on the changes and the car got faster as the day went on. They improved it by the end. I'm happy because I expected the worst and hoped for the best from the Car of Tomorrow here at Darlington, and we came out with something in between. I'll bet I hit the wall 15 times today and I'm sure that didn't help it one bit." "It's been a long week, and that race seemed like it was a week long itself. I mean, this thing seemed longer than the ones at Pocono. And that's LONG. At least at Pocono you have a little bit of grip and a straightaway to catch your breath, but here you are working ALL the time, even on the straightaways. It seems like it takes and act of God to restart without spinning your tires. That'll wear ya out!" About the choice to stay out on lap 345 (of 367), when many other lead lap cars pitted: "It was the right choice and I agreed with it. We're here to win this thing, and that was our best chance. I think we would have been able to stay in the top-three or top-five if the yellow flags wouldn't have come out late in the race. Once that happened, my tires just weren't fresh enough to hold them off. But it was the right call at that time."
Riding with Junior
Best Radio ChatterPrior to the race, the biggest concern from Dale Jr. and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. was sliding into the walls at each end of the greasy, slick Darlington track. That topic became a running theme of the day's radio chatter.
Dale Jr.: (under yellow, lap 123) "Have I hurt the car on the fence? I know I've hit it a few times, but have I made the car tighter?"
Eury Jr: "I think you're OK. It doesn't look like you've got into it with the tires or the fenders."
Steve Hmiel (spotter): "Guys, the only damage is from the A-post back... and pretty high up. It looks OK." On lap 240:
Dale Jr: "I lost count on how many times I've hit the fence. How many times did we say Tony Jr?"
Eury Jr: "I've seen at least six right here (out of turn four)."
Dale Jr: "Ha! Yeah about six on that end and at least twice off turn two."
On lap 296, while racing in heavy traffic - referring to the ongoing wall-contact count:
Dale Jr. (yelling): "Number nine!" Under yellow on lap 303 (referring to a scheduled test session at Dover that was cancelled by NASCAR during the race).
Dale Jr: "Just tell me I have the day off tomorrow and I'll really get up on the wheel here! I'm not tired - I just HATE how long this race is!"
Eury Jr: "The test is off. You can take the whole week off!"
Dale Jr. (jubilant): "Alright! This thing takes forever!" On lap 320, back to the counting...
Dale Jr. (yelling) : "10 and 11!"
Today's StatsStarted: 21st
Points: 12th (no change)
Laps Led: --
Best Pit Stop: Stop 8 of 8 / lap 334 / Four tires and fuel / 12.33 seconds