Hendrick drivers struggle in opener, just like last year

2/19/2008 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Hendrick Motorsports had a bad day in the Daytona 500 Sunday. But guess what? It wasn't as bad as a year ago.

If you think the Hendrick boys are off their game, a look back at the 2007 Daytona 500 shows a slow start in the first event doesn't mean much.

Jimmie Johnson finished 39th one year ago and went on to win his second consecutive Cup title. Jeff Gordon was the organization's best finisher in 10th, but started the Chase on top of the points standings.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the top Hendrick finisher Sunday in ninth. Gordon had suspension part failure. Johnson and Casey Mears were involved in accidents late in the race.

It was a four-strikeout day for the Hendrick heavy hitters, but how things go at Daytona rarely is indicative of how the season will unfold.

Hendrick's guys will win their share. One rotten outing doesn't change that fact. But other teams have gained ground, so last year's Hendrick domination appears unlikely.

Toyota is vastly improved with Joe Gibbs Racing. And Dodge has stepped up because of improvements at Penske Racing, Ganassi Racing and Gillett Evernham Motorsports.

Ford probably has only three who can challenge Hendrick -- Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle at Roush Fenway Racing -- but all three are serious Chase contenders.

Hendrick still is the best team in Sprint Cup. It hasn't slipped off the mountaintop, but a few other teams have climbed up there too.

To pit or not to pit?
Controversial decisions by the No. 88 team in the final 40 laps of the Daytona 500 ruined Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s chances of winning Sunday. Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. elected not to pit under yellow when Earnhardt was running third with 38 laps to go.

The leaders had pitted seven laps earlier under caution, but the lead pack came in again for right-side tires, believing new tires were the way to go.

Earnhardt stayed on the track and moved to the lead. Eury was banking on another caution, and he was right. It came 11 laps later.

But Earnhardt again did not pit, this time because of a miscommunication on the team radio.

Another yellow flag flew with 18 laps to go, but it was too late to pit then. Earnhardt would have given up too much track position to make it up in the final laps.

Earnhardt said after the race that failing to pit didn't matter. He said tire wear wasn't a factor and he needed track position to get to the front.

Really? If tire wear didn't matter, why did the other contenders come in for new tires with only seven laps on the old ones?

Kyle Busch had the fastest car all day. Busch was beatable, as we saw. But did Eury think Earnhardt would beat Busch on old tires?

Earnhardt was stuck on older tires than everyone else in the top 10.

You don't win at Daytona on old tires. It was a bad call and it cost Earnhardt dearly.

Hornish stands out
What do Daytona 500 winners Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Michael Waltrip have in common? They all finished behind Cup rookie Sam Hornish Jr. in Sunday's Daytona 500.

Go ahead and add Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Mark Martin to that list. They also ended the race looking at Hornish's rear wing.

Hornish's 15th-place showing in his first Daytona race was nothing short of phenomenal. The man can wheel a race car.

Hornish ran in the top 10 for a good portion of the race, making moves in the draft that most drivers take years to perfect in restrictor-plate racing.

He ran as high as fourth at one point. Hornish still has a lot to learn, but he'll get there if he has the team and the equipment equal to the task.

Same ol' story
New name, same results. The opening Nationwide Series event was a Cup warm-up race, just as it was in the old Busch Series.

Cup regulars dominated the Camping World 300 Saturday at Daytona. Eleven of the top 12 finishers were Cup regulars, including race winner Tony Stewart.

The hero of the day was 18-year-old Nationwide rookie Bryan Clausen, who finished sixth. Kelly Bires in 12th was the next Nationwide-only driver on the box score.

Changes are coming next season, but NASCAR officials have no intention of limiting the involvement of Cup regulars and Cup teams.

The series needs the big names from Cup to help sell tickets and sponsorship. What it doesn't need is Cup stars racing for the Nationwide championship and running the entire Nationwide schedule.

It's likely NASCAR will ban Cup regulars from earning points in the Nationwide Series, starting in 2009.

Hopefully this will discourage the Cup guys from running every event in the feeder league and cause NASCAR team owners to put more up-and-comers in the cars.

Foyt vs. Andretti
The awkward moment of the weekend at Daytona came during the prerace drivers' meeting when all the former Daytona 500 winners were on stage behind the competitors.

As it worked out, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti were sitting right next to each other.

Fortunately, both of them are too old now to throw down. Otherwise, the prerace activities for the 50th 500 might have included a glimpse of the brawling days of yore.

Foyt versus Andretti was one of the great rivalries in racing history, and all these years later, they still can't stand each other. The vitriol between them makes Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch look like BFFs.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.