They may not have been in victory lane at Kentucky Speedway Saturday night, but the drivers for Hendrick Motorsports still managed an impressive finish as all four cars ended the night in the top 10.
Uncharacteristic of years past, Dale Earnhardt Jr. led the contingent. He started 29th but thanks to the timing of the final pit stops of the night, he found himself in third. On lap 215, Earnhardt followed Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman in for green flag stops. Just as the stop was completed, Aric Almirola smacked the turn four wall bringing out the sixth and final caution of the night. The lead group pitted and suddenly Earnhardt found himself third. He didn’t have the speed to hold off eventual winner Brad Keselowski but was able to hold on and finish fifth.
The speed he found Saturday night was something not present during practice and qualifying the day prior.
“I didn’t have any answers for why we were struggling (Friday),” Earnhardt said. “Steve (Letarte, crew chief) and the engineers got in the hauler and talked all night long, and all day today and put a great car underneath us.”
Earnhardt was also quick to praise his No. 88 crew.
“Those guys were gaining spots for me every stop,” he said. “Even when we were taking four tires, we were beating a lot of guys off pit road. “
A year after starting from the pole and finishing 12th, the fifth is Earnhardt’s second best finish at Kentucky; his best finish, a fourth came in 2012.
“This place is a bit of a handful for me,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t think I’ve got it figured out just yet. And I don’t exactly know what I’m looking for and how I need the car to drive. So Steve and the guys did a good job in having to deal with me and trying to put a good car under me this weekend. It was a lot of fun in the race. The strategy was good on pit road. Steve’s fuel strategy gained us a lot of track position.”
Jeff Gordon started third but was never able to find the speed to contend for the win. He did manage a quiet sixth place finish.
“I’m disappointed,” Gordon said. “I thought we were going to be better than that…we had some issues and got behind. The car was pretty decent at the end but not enough to move up. I thought we made the most of what happened to us tonight.”
For Kasey Kahne the night was a battle. He started 20th and was slowly making his way through the field when on lap 153 his night almost came to an end. Alex Bowman went into a spin exiting turn 2; those behind him slowed; Jamie McMurray was hit by Aric Almirola. McMurray then shot up into Kahne who was trying to avoid the mess.
“We had some damage,” Kahne said. “I couldn’t get stopped I hit him, the No. 43 (Aric Almirola) hit him, just too many cars in one spot on the road. “
Despite the damage, Kahne was able to continue. That wasn’t his only issue however. A bad pit stop later put him back to 18th. Kahne was able to rally back in the late going and finished eighth.
“I was really happy with the speed of our Great Clips Chevy,” Kahne said. “Just too many errors if you want to run up front.”
Jimmie Johnson never ran near the front and seemed to struggle the entire race. His record at Kentucky is a decent one although it remains one of the tracks he has yet to win at. Saturday night he finished tenth, his worst finish in four years the series has visited. Johnson said his troubles started on Friday.
“We didn’t qualify well that had us in a terrible spot with track position,” Johnson said. “I would work my way to the front and get in the top 10, top five.”
The biggest issue according to Johnson was his pit position, which was based on his 25th place starting spot.
“Because of our poor qualifying position we just didn’t have a good pit stall,” Johnson said. “I was between the No. 10 (Danica Patrick) and the No. 18 (Kyle Busch) and they were both fast all night long. I would lose five or six spots on pit road each time. According to lap times what I heard in my ear I think we were a competitive car and we could have been up there and maybe had a look at those guys in some clean air. But we just messed up on Friday and got behind the eight ball.”