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Playoff drivers getting no breaks

If team orders are being given at Dale Earnhardt Inc., Michael Waltrip needs to check his in-box more often. Though Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third at New Hampshire on Sunday to take the points lead in the first of 10 playoff races, he did not detect any help from his teammate. In fact, he was upset that Waltrip nearly wrecked him on a green-flag pit stop with about 40 laps left.

"I was waving at him. I was really upset about it," said Earnhardt, who shares the points lead with New Hampshire-winner Kurt Busch but has one more win. "We came off pit road side by side. He drove the car all the way up to the yellow line as if I wasn't even there. And then went in the corner. I thought he was trying to give me the spot.

"And then when we got to the center of the corner and he'd still be there and I'd about wreck into the side of him. That happened for three or four laps. I was just trying to figure out where he was getting his team orders from because whoever was giving them to him needs a new check."

Earnhardt said he detected different levels of respect around the 10 playoff drivers.

"It depends on who you race with. The people I was around (Sunday) raced me with maybe a minimal amount of more respect than I normally get," he said. "Some guys aren't going to change. You could paint these walls black and there are some guys that wouldn't know the difference."

Enter Robby Gordon. The quirky Richard Childress Racing driver was not the most popular guy in the NASCAR garage before Sunday. After starting an accident that knocked out championship contenders Tony Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield , his credibility fell a few more pegs.

"When you race with idiots, some things are going to happen," said Stewart's crew chief, Greg Zipadelli.

Gordon has been outspoken, unconventional and borderline reckless in his career, claim several NASCAR drivers, but the retaliation against Greg Bifflemay yield serious consequences. NASCAR issued him a two-lap penalty for rough driving, but justice could be distributed by his peers. Perhaps they should hurry. The Winston-Salem Journal reported on Monday that Gordon, who has just five top-10s in 27 races this year, will be replaced full time in the No. 31 Chevrolet by Dave Blaney, who drove Childress' No. 30 before Jeff Burton took over. The Boston Herald reported that Ricky Craven, recently replaced in the PPI Motorsports No. 32 Dodge, will take Gordon's place at Dover.

If this was the end, it was tempestuous. Gordon made an obscene gesture to reporters gathered outside of his hauler before being zoomed away on a golf cart after the race. On Monday, he issued an apology.

"I allowed my frustration with (Biffle) to affect two other teams, both of which have great shots to win a championship, and for that I am sorry," the statement said.

"It's just no fun when somebody that isn't in the points battle makes a mistake and takes everybody out, but that's the risk you take," said Jimmie Johnson, who finished 11th Sunday and stands fifth (30 points off the lead) in the points chase.

Johnson was involved in a collision late in the Richmond race involving two drivers _ Casey Mears and Jimmy Spencer _ out of the playoff chase.

ONE DOWN: Does one horrific race eliminate a driver from title contention? Stewart, Mayfield and Ryan Newman, who started the day in 10th place and suffered engine failure late in the race, have to reject that notion. Stewart finished 39th, Mayfield 35th and Newman 33rd. Stewart fell four spots in the standings to eighth and is 124 points behind Earnhardt. Newman (136 points back) actually gained a spot to ninth. "We can make it up," Newman said. "We'll go on. It hurts, but it doesn't kill us."

SPARK PLUGS: Zephyrhills native David Reutimann produced his best finish in 11 races in the NASCAR truck series on Saturday, finishing fifth at the Sylvania 200 at New Hampshire. The top rookie in the series improved to 14th in the driver standings.