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LOUDON

'Winning, despite a dismal day'

'Hendrick equipment excels at Loudon, while drivers falter'

Hendrick Motorsports and winning usually go hand-in-hand. Its roster includes reigning five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champion Jeff Gordon and future Hall of Famer Mark Martin. And while the fourth member of their lineup, Dale Earnhardt Jr., hasn't had a victory in over 100 races, he's won the most popular driver award for eight straight years.

The theme continued in yesterday's Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, only the aforementioned drivers had absolutely nothing to do with the victory.

See, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart, who finished first and second, respectively, drive for Stewart-Haas Racing, which receives engine and technical support from Hendrick.

It was the lone bright spot in what proved to be an uncharacteristic day for arguably the best racing team in the sport.

Now, it's important to note that the standards are high. After all with a roster like Hendrick's, the team should be a threat to win at every event on the 36-race circuit. So when three pilots finish outside the top 10 - like they did yesterday - it immediately puts a spotlight on the entire organization. And it starts with Mr. Five Time.

Johnson traded paint early on with Kyle Busch as he tried to make his way through the field after starting 28th. After leading a few laps, Johnson eventually had to pit for fresh tires and fuel. But when one of his crew members failed to tighten the fifth lugnut on his left-front tire, he was forced to re-enter pit road to fix the gaffe, costing him a lap. Pit road troubles have plagued Johnson all season, in spite of his second-place standing.

"I was just driving my guts out. . . . Anything that could have gone wrong did," said Johnson, who also hit the wall on lap 240 but still rebounded to finish a more than respectable fifth. "It started out with a bad qualifying effort on Friday, and we paid the price for that on pit road and track position at the start. And then we had some issues on pit road."

Gordon's day was probably the most interesting. His car was one of the best on the track and he ran up front for 19 laps. But a battery issue midway through the race cost him track position. The team replaced the battery on lap 163 with Gordon going a lap down in the process. He took advantage of some caution flags to get back on the lead lap and once again ran inside the top five. But a blown right-front tire on the final lap cost him seven spots, and he crossed the Granite Stripe in 11th.

"You have to survive these races in a lot of different ways," he said. "We had a lot of obstacles thrown at us with the alternator issue, which caused me to have to turn my A/C off and brake blowers, which probably ultimately blew that right-front tire there at the end. So it was a challenging day in a lot of ways."

Earnhardt was displeased with his car all afternoon. It's a minor miracle that he even placed 15th. He started the race in 22nd and had a right-front tire fail on him 54 laps in. Poor pit strategy by taking four tires on three consecutive stops (instead of opting for two like most teams) kept putting him behind the same drivers he had just passed. And to top it all off, one of his crew members stepped outside the pit box, forcing Earnhardt to the tail end of the longest line.

As for Martin, he ran outside the top 20 for most of the day. The one time he ran up front, following a caution on lap 61, he was passed quickly by Newman. On lap 143, Martin reported that he might be having the same battery issue as Gordon, however, it was never mentioned again. On lap 184, he spun out in turn 2 and struggled to pit properly on the ensuing caution, costing him time and positions.

But the weekend wasn't a total loss.

"I'm really proud of everybody at (Stewart-Haas Racing) and thankful to Rick Hendrick and all his guys in the engine and chassis department over there at Hendrick Motorsports. They've all done a great job of having a great landmark day for us," said Stewart on Friday after he and Newman qualified on the front row together.

The landmark day turned into a landmark weekend for Newman and Stewart. Hendrick's drivers outperformed the equipment yesterday, yet somehow, Hendrick still found its familiar spot in the winner's circle.

(Gavin Faretra can be reached at 369-3340 or gfaretra@cmonitor.com.)