By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
After Friday’s bizarre qualifying session for the Good Sam 500 at Phoenix International Raceway left Dale Earnhardt Jr. starting in the 26th position, Jimmie Johnson in a back up car, and Kasey Kahne needing a new engine, all three drivers needed to rebound in Sunday’s Good Sam 500. Both Johnson and Kahne relinquished their starting positions and started in the rear per the NASCAR rulebook.
When the green flag waved, both Johnson and Kahne quickly worked their way up through the field. Within 30 laps, both Johnson and Kahne had climbed up and into the top 20. Meanwhile, Earnhardt quietly worked his way up, breaking into the top 15. The first caution of the race, on lap 51, allowed all three teams to employ strategy to help their drivers gain valuable track position.
On the ensuing restart, Earnhardt slowly worked his way to the front as Johnson broke into the Top 10, passing his Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) teammate Chase Elliott, with Kahne lagging behind his teammates, just inside the Top 15.
Shortly after this restart, Earnhardt worked his past Carl Edwards, putting pressure on Kyle Busch, who took two tires under the previous caution to Earnhardt’s four. By lap 75 Earnhardt had slipped past Busch, taking the lead. Earnhardt would lead the Good Sam 500 for 34 laps, until the caution waved on lap 107.
By the time of the second caution, Johnson had climbed to the sixth position, while Kahne lagged behind in the 14th position.
By lap 135, Johnson finally broke into the top five while Earnhardt slid as far back as seventh. Johnson climbed as far up as third, but never reached the lead. Meanwhile, Kahne hovered around the 15th position, trailing all three of his HMS teammates.
As the laps ran down, Earnhardt ran second to race leader Kevin Harvick, as Johnson ran in seventh and Kahne in 15th.
Kahne’s race for redemption after this week’s hellacious qualifying session, ended just a few laps from the finish as he melted a bead in the right front tire and smacked the turn three wall. Kahne’s team was able to repair his car, losing only one lap in the process.
Under this final caution, Earnhardt’s crew chief, Greg Ives decided to stay out as most of the field behind them pitted for fresh tires.
Earnhardt restarted in second, on the inside of Harvick, who would go on to win the race, with Denny Hamlin behind Earnhardt, and Edwards behind Harvick. Earnhardt slipped back, finishing in the fifth position as Johnson finished in 11th. Kahne wound up 22nd, one lap down.
In the end, Earnhardt climbed 21 positions from his starting spot. Johnson, who was listed as starting fifth but had to drop from the rear, climbed 28 positions from 39th.
Earnhardt said the following to the media about his day, “Yeah, I was surprised we finished as good as we did. I thought that was a good move to not pit. If a couple more guys don’t pit and we get another guy on the outside in the second row we was in good shape.”
Earnhardt also commented when asked about the final restart, “I would have loved to have had the top, so I could get them guys on the bottom and hold them down, but I had the bottom and new tires on the outside of me a situation. But, we finished really good. I don’t dislike the call to stay out. We had an awesome car and that’s three weeks in a row I’ve enjoyed the hell out of driving it. I had a fun day and we ran great; really, really good. I’m proud of my guys.”
Kahne, who had a decent day before his tire went down, was left scratching his head and wondering when his luck will turn around. “We had a right front tire go down earlier in the race, but a caution came out and I thought it was the engine at the time because of the way it kind of vibrated and changed the tone of the engine. Come to find out it wasn’t the engine and it was the tire. We’ll look at what we are doing since it happened a couple of times. We had a car capable of running in the top 15. The longer the race went I felt like I got looser. I used a lot of brake during the entire the race, which I was surprised about. Yesterday in practice I didn’t have to use the brake hardly at all and today with different grips I used it so much.”
Looking forward towards next weekend, both Earnhardt and Johnson will be looking to extend their momentum at Auto Club Speedway. Earnhardt and Johnson will also be dueling, driving cars that are promoting the new Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice movie. At the same time, Kahne will be looking to reclaim some of his former magic at a track he last won at in 2006.
Image: Christian Petersen/Getty Images