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New Hendrick driver runs up front but has no one to draft with at end as team hits bumps.
Published Feb. 19, 2008

Dale Earnhardt Jr. could have used some help from his new Hendrick Motorsports teammates.

Too bad all of them were out of contention.

Four-time champ Jeff Gordon had a mechanical failure, while two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears wrecked in Sunday's 50th running of the Daytona 500.

None could offer Earnhardt any assistance. And he couldn't get it done by himself, ending his chance at becoming the first driver to win the exhibition Budweiser Shootout, one of the twin qualifying races and the Daytona 500 in the same season.

Earnhardt finished ninth, the highest of the Hendrick cars, but still a disappointment for NASCAR's most popular driver who got off to a great start with his new team.

Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt's crew chief, left him out the last two times other leaders pitted in an effort to keep Earnhardt up front. He had older tires but they weren't the issue.

"We had good grip at the end," Earnhardt said. "The track was cooling off, and the car was fine. I made the wrong choices with the runs I got. If you're in the right line, the help goes with you."

Earnhardt was strong in the Shootout and even better in his 150-mile qualifier, establishing himself as one of the favorites for the season-opening 500.

His Hendrick teammates were right up there, too.

But Gordon, Johnson and Mears ended up way back - unable to team with Earnhardt and help him get to the front.

"That's what happens when you get a lot of hype and expectations," Gordon said of the superteam. "You've got go out there and make it to the finish."

Johnson was 27th, Mears was 35th and Gordon was 39th.

Gordon was the first in trouble, making a pit stop on Lap 154, then heading to the garage with suspension failure.

"We had some issues testing, all of us did," Gordon said. "The suspension is just so tough on these cars with these bumps here. You don't know what's taking all the load. You keep fixing one thing and it just creates another issue."

Johnson's day ended 23 laps later, after he slid sideways in Turn 2, got nudged by Sam Hornish Jr., then spun around and slammed into Martin Truex Jr.

Mears was running with the leaders with six laps to go, but in trying to block Tony Stewart he got hit and tagged the wall.

That left Earnhardt all alone for the final restart.

He was fifth with three to go but got stuck on the inside groove and dropped well back of Penske Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch, who gave Dodge a 1-2 finish.

Earnhardt's finish was lower than expected, but he turned it into a positive, especially since he was 32nd here last year and never recovered during his final season with Dale Earnhardt Inc.

"I was really satisfied with how the week went," Earnhardt said. "Believe me. ...We could have ran terrible. We could have had a lot of mishaps and misfortunes. We were lucky, fortunate, had some success, got something to build on. I think my cars are going to be great this year."

The Associated Press and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.