DARLINGTON, S.C. — In the long shadow cast by dominating winner Kevin Harvick Saturday night at Darlington Raceway, three Hendrick Motorsports drivers finished with strong runs.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. came home second, Jimmie Johnson third and Jeff Gordon seventh in the Bojangles' Southern 500, making Hendrick shine on a night when Harvick seemed to be a calendar page ahead most of the evening.
Impressive results were expected from Gordon, a seven-time winner at one of NASCAR's toughest tracks, and Johnson, who has won three times here. Earnhardt Jr. remains winless at Darlington, but his Saturday night finish is his best here in a career total of 20 starts. His previous best was fourth.
Kasey Kahne, in the fourth Hendrick Chevrolet, finished 37th after an accident with 50 laps to go, continuing what has been a tough season for the No. 5 car.
Although Earnhardt Jr. lost a green-white-checkered shootout to Harvick, he scored his third second-place finish of the season and washed out some of the stains remaining from a 43rd-place run last week at Texas Motor Speedway.
"It hurts a little to come so close," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We work so hard to win races. Second is great, but nobody is going to remember that. We're proud of it, though. I'm proud of these guys' effort. They worked their guts out to try to give us the best.
"If you scratch Texas off the map, that's how good we are. This is as good as this team's ever been. There are places where we can get a little better, but we're really right there."
Johnson, winless eight races into the season, struggled early Saturday night but climbed through the field and led eight of the final 15 laps.
"We did it the old-fashioned way and drove up through the field," Johnson said. "We just need to show up at the track a little closer."
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The teams of Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Gordon took only two tires in the closing round of pit stops in an effort to stymie Harvick, who got four tires. Harvick survived two green-white-checkereds, passing Earnhardt Jr. with two to go, to win.
"I was happy with Chad's (crew chief Chad Knaus) decision to go with two (tires)," Johnson said. "It gave us a chance. We struggled the first run or two of the race, but we got the car turning for me and (it) came to life."
Johnson started 26th and had handling issues in the early laps, but he moved into the top 10 at lap 120 and was in the top five most of the rest of the way.
Although Gordon's effort sagged in the final 10 laps, he had one of the evening's most consistent performances in search of his first seasonal win. He was in the top 10 all night, led eight laps and stayed atop the point standings.
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