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Earnhardt keeps carrying flag for Hendrick stable

March 26, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Earnhardt keeps carrying flag for Hendrick stable

FONTANA, Calif. -- Kasey Kahne is battling back from a near-disastrous start. Jeff Gordon is watching something else go wrong every week. Jimmie Johnson is showing only a glimpse of the consistency he once used to win five consecutive championships at NASCAR's highest level.

Meet Dale Earnhardt Jr., standard-bearer at Hendrick Motorsports.

"I like how our season is going so far. If we can keep going like this, we might get some opportunities like we did last year of winning some races and seal the deal eventually."

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

That's certainly the way it's been through the first five weeks of this Sprint Cup season, as consistently strong runs by NASCAR's most popular driver have made him the class of what has long been NASCAR's best organization. It happened again Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, where Earnhardt was one of several drivers to stay out of the pits during a caution for rain, and parlayed that move into an eventual third-place finish when wet weather forced officials to call the event 71 laps short of its scheduled distance.

"We drove the car up to fifth before the weather came. We had been watching the weather all day. We felt certain if it started to rain, it wasn't going to stop," Earnhardt said. "We made the right choice by staying out and building ourselves into the top three."

It was no fluke finish for Earnhardt, who was in the top 10 for almost the whole race before recording his second-best finish of this young season. In the process he moved up three positions to third in points, making him easily the highest-ranking driver in a Hendrick Motorsports stable that's suddenly juggling one problematic issue after another.

There's Kahne, who pulled himself off the top 35 bubble with a 14th-place finish Sunday but still languishes low in the standings. There's Johnson, who had smoke emitting from his No. 48 car just as the rain came and was bailed out by the weather. And there's Gordon, who saw another great car go for naught -- this time because of a pair of pit penalties that relegated him to a 26th-place finish.

And then there's Earnhardt, who maybe hasn't won since 2008, but is sailing along despite all the havoc around him.

"Jeff had a little trouble on pit road. Jimmie, they decided to come down pit road because they thought it was not going to run all day. They've been beating us most of the weekend," Earnhardt said. "We've really been competitive, though. I like how our season is going so far. If we can keep going like this, we might get some opportunities like we did last year of winning some races and seal the deal eventually."

Sunday, his teammates weren't as fortunate. Johnson had one of the better cars in the race, but smoke began billowing from beneath his vehicle shortly after NASCAR threw the caution for rain. A radio problem only complicated the issue, which turned out to be a severed oil line. Johnson watched his oil pressure plummet, fell backward in the running order, and yet salvaged a 10th-place finish when the race was called due to weather.

"I really don't know what had happened," Johnson said during the red flag before the race was ended. "I was just idling along and my friends pulled up alongside of me and were pointing. They said, 'You're smoking.' I heard it over the radio and I could obviously see and smell it, but I don't know what really caused it yet. It's just a wild change of events, because when I came to pit road and took four tires, I wanted it to dry up real quick. Now I'm sitting here praying for rain."

He got just that. "If we did go back to green-flag racing, we would be multiple laps down," crew chief Chad Knaus said. "We don't really know what happened to the car just yet. We've got to get it in here and take a look at it."

Gordon wasn't as fortunate, and added another chapter to his litany of 2012 frustration. At Daytona, he was caught up in a wreck. Last week at Bristol, he was knocked out when Earnhardt's tailpipe inadvertently cut down the left-rear tire on his No. 24 car. Friday in Fontana he spoke about feeling some pressure to get good finishes to match good cars like the one he had Sunday, which ran in the top five for much of the event.

But it all unraveled on pit road, where Gordon first had to serve a stop-and-go penalty that put him a lap down, the violation coming when he dragged a fuel can -- and the fuel man attached to it -- out of his pit box. Later, taking two tires to try to gain track position, his crew was flagged for having a tire get away. Gordon finished 26th in the race, and dropped to 25th in points.

Meanwhile, Earnhardt just keeps rolling along, propelled by crew chief Steve Letarte, good finishes, and strong cars almost every week.

"I'm really happy," he said. "I'm performing better. Most of the credit has to go to Steve and the team. Those guys did a great job today on pit road. We had some really good stops. Steve is doing an amazing job. He deserves most of the credit for how well we're running. He's giving me really good cars, cars that are fun to drive, relatively easy to drive."

Runner-up Kyle Busch, in the interview alongside Earnhardt, couldn't let that go. "Must be nice," he said. "They're not easy to drive."

Earnhardt laughed. "Compared to the last several years," he added, "they've gotten easier."