Hendrick Motorsports drivers delivered mixed results on Sunday.
Jimmie Johnson didn’t have a car capable of competing with race winner Denny Hamlin at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but consistency and his second consecutive second-place finish elevated the five-time champion to the top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings.
Johnson led just two laps in the Sylvania 300, but the team made solid adjustments on the car which allowed the driver to come from 20th to the lead by Lap 109.
"We had a great race car, just not an amazing car like the No. 11 (team of Hamlin) had,” Johnson said. “We were best in class today; did a great job. We really expected the No. 11 to be tough here today, and he was.
“I was telling the guys on the radio on the way in, to only leave seven points on the table in two races is pretty good. We missed that win last week, and this week, and we didn’t lead the most this weekend, but it is probably seven total. That’s not bad. Very proud of this team."
Johnson led the most laps last week at Chicagoland Speedway, but finished second to Brad Keselowski. His second-place finish on Sunday vaulted the five-time champion over Keselowski by one point.
Johnson says the top spot is exactly where he wants to be, particularly with the Sprint Cup tour traveling to Dover International Speedway next weekend –a track where he has seven wins in 21 starts.
“This track here we have a few wins, but I kind of average like a top 10,” Johnson said. “So to beat our average here is very important and very helpful in the Chase. Then we’ve got to go to Dover next weekend, a place I love and hopefully have a good, smart day and get the finish we hope to have.”
After a devastating 35th-place finish last week at Chicagoland Speedway, Jeff Gordon earned the pole position and finished third Sunday – his third finish of sixth or higher in as many events. For Gordon, who remains in the Chase for the Sprint Cup cellar and trails Johnson by 45 points, the performance was a morale boost for both driver and his team.
“We gained a lot on a lot of guys,” Gordon said. “It’s going to be tough to gain on guys like the No. 48 (Johnson) and the No. 2 (Keselowski). Certainly today nobody was going to gain on that No. 11, still a really great effort, top three. I hate what happened in Chicago, we would have back-to-back top fives, I think.
“Still great effort by the team, I thought the pit stops were great. All the way around a great effort this weekend, great calls in the pits, adjustments as well. That was the best the car had been all day long was right there at the end and that is all you can ask for. We didn’t have a car that could win. I thought we were a third- or fifth-place car, we came home third. That is pretty good.”
Kasey Kahne, who won the July NHMS race, delivered a solid top-five finish at the Magic Mile and held on to fifth in the points standings.
But Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggled to stay in the Chase pack after a miscue in the pits during the first stop on the Lap 40 competition caution knocked him from ninth to 19th.
Despite multiple adjustments on the car, crew chief Steve Letarte was never able to find the comfort Junior sought. A fortunate caution on Lap 129 saved Earnhardt from falling off the lead lap. However, through most of the race he wallowed outside of the top 15. On the final pit stops, during the fourth caution on Lap 273, Letarte elected to take two tires. Earnhardt restarted 14th and gained on spot over the final 16 laps.
Earnhardt remains seventh in the points standings, but now trails the leader by 26 points.