Duo struggles at Vegas on Sunday

Updated: March 8, 2004, 3:37 PM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | Special to ESPN.com

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Jr.
LAS VEGAS -- One driver's race pretty much ended in the pits. Another's race was the pits.

That just about sums up the disappointing finishes for Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Sunday's UAW-DaimlerChrylser 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Johnson was leading the race when Scott Wimmer's blown engine brought out a caution flag on lap 39. Johnson pulled into the pits, had a quick service stop, began pulling out of his stall ... and ran right into the left rear quarter panel of Kevin Lepage's Chevy.

The altercation tore up the front right corner of Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet and knocked him out of the lead. He had to return to the pits three more times under the same yellow caution flag for repairs. Shortly after racing resumed under green-flag conditions, Johnson had dropped as far back as 33rd.

While he made a valiant effort to rally -- at one point getting back to as high as third place -- Johnson's car eventually faded to a disappointing 16th-place finish. Gambling on a two-tire pit stop on lap 201 also proved costly. While he exited the pits in third, tire wear would eventually take much of the handling away from Johnson, who kept dropping places until his eventual showing.

"We had a really good car until that incident in the pits," Johnson lamented after the race. "From there, we just had to keep working on the car and keep working our way back as best as we could. We'll be OK. We just really need to get it into first gear. It seems like with Rockingham (finished 41st due to a crash) and then now here, we've had a lot of little things take place.

"But it's a very long season. Last year in the middle of the season, we had some hiccups. And the year before that, we had them at the end of the season. So that stage comes along for all teams. If you can just make a decent day out of it, that's the thing to try to do. We finished 16th today and that's decent. If we can build on that from there, we'll be OK. We just can't have any more DNFs (like at Rockingham)."

Earnhardt, on the other hand, continued to get back on the racetrack until he couldn't mathematically earn any more points, ending up 35th and bowing out after 196 laps, 71 laps behind race winner Matt Kenseth.

Earnhardt made several trips both to the pits and garage area to allow his crew to work on setup and handling revisions on the No. 8 Chevy. But the harder Earnhardt's team worked to find the right combination, the further he fell behind.

Sunday's race was extremely costly for Earnhardt. Two races after winning the Daytona 500, he fell hard out of first place in the standings, dropping to seventh place heading into next Sunday's race at Atlanta.

"Yeah, it's really disappointing," Earnhardt said. "We were about a second off the pace, no matter what we did. I know it's going to be a black Monday at the shop, but I also know we're going to do an awful lot of laps in testing this week at Kentucky (Speedway) to figure out what was wrong.

"We've always been good at Atlanta, so we should be OK. I mean, we started last year with two finishes like this and came back strong the rest of the year. Yeah, we should have tested here, but it's too late now. I know we're going to do what we can to figure out what we need to do to correct whatever was wrong."

By virtue of Earnhardt's misfortune, Kenseth assumes the top spot atop the standings, leading Tony Stewart by 88 points, Elliott Sadler by 118 and Jeff Gordon by 119. It was one week after winning at Las Vegas last year that Kenseth took over the points lead (at Atlanta) and remained No. 1 the remainder of the season.

Stewart gets grip on tires, spoliers

Tony Stewart
Stewart
Finishing third Sunday, it could pretty much be assumed that Tony Stewart is a convert to NASCAR's adoption of softer tires and shorter spoilers this season.

But like someone ready to back a politician, Stewart says he still needs a little bit more time to give the tire and spoiler package his full endorsement.

"I think I'm going to wait one more week for sure to know," he said. "This track has always been a track where the tires give up. I felt like I could race better with guys today than I was able to do in the past. It used to be that you could only get up so close and you were done. There was just nothing you could do. Today, you could move around on the racetrack a little more. You could do things driving-wise to keep yourself close.

"I think the package is working, but I think we're really going to get our first true test of it in Atlanta. ... My gut feeling is that our package is better and it's going to make the racing better for the fans, and they're going to actually get to see us actually be able to race and not have to worry about fuel mileage."

Stewart also had a slight run-in with a trio of fans who somehow managed to get into the press interview room after Sunday's race. Stewart became increasingly annoyed that the fans, who were noticeably out of place in the front row, were talking between themselves while he was answering questions from the media. He finally had enough, stopped and, in typical Stewart fashion, gave them a piece of his mind.

"Are we interrupting you guys? I'm sorry, I didn't know if you wanted for them (the media) to hear something. OK, no worries. Let me finish and then you guys can talk all you want around here."

From sidelines to pit road, part one

Troy Aikman
Aikman
The lure of NASCAR to individuals more commonly associated with professional football continues.

It was announced prior to Sunday's race that a pair of legendary former Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks, Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach, will join forces with Hendrick Motorsports to field a full-time Nextel Cup team in 2005.

The team, known as Hall of Fame Racing, actually formed last year. There's no word on who the team's driver will be, although veteran Trans-Am driver Bill Saunders is also a partner in the ownership group with Staubach and Aikman.

"I've always been enthusiastic about our entry into NASCAR, but I can honestly say that having the huge hand that is being provided by a man I respect and admire the way I do Rick (Hendrick), well I guess you could say I'm way past enthusiastic," Staubach said.

From sidelines to pit road, part two
Former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway was a visitor to Chip Ganassi's pit stall prior to Sunday's race. The pair exchanged pleasantries for several minutes.

Ganassi is no stranger to the gridiron world, with former NFL quarterback great Joe Montana having been a minority team owner in Ganassi's open-wheel operation during the 1990s.

Given how friendly they seemed to be together in the pits prior to Sunday's race, not to mention the Staubach-Aikman-Hendrick announcement, one has to wonder if Ganassi might soon be cutting Elway into a piece of his NASCAR operation.

Heard on the P.A.
Robin Leach of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" handled driver introductions prior to Sunday's race. & Singer Robert Goulet raised a few eyebrows with his interpretation of the National Anthem. Rather than singing the entire song, Goulet performed a combination of singing and speaking the words to the song through most of the verses. But he finally sang the last stanza in typical Goulet form.

One of the funnier incidents of the day occurred right after the anthem. Some track officials apparently thought "General Holyfield" was some big military honcho from Nellis Air Force Base, located directly across the road from Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

But any true wrestling fan will tell you General Holyfield is actually a wrestler in the World Wrestling Entertainment (formerly WWF). Holyfield's gravely "Gentlemen, start your engines" drew a huge round of cheers and applause from the estimated 145,000 fans on hand.

Speaking of fans, with the addition of the new 22,000 Earnhardt Terrace in Turn 4, capacity at LVMS has been increased to 145,000 -- with plenty of room left over for seemingly inevitable future expansion, given the increasing popularity this race and Las Vegas has with NASCAR fans.

Vexed Vickers

Brian Vickers
Vickers
Even though he qualified an impressive third for Sunday's race, highly-touted rookie Brian Vickers continues to struggle when it comes to finishing.

The defending Busch Series champion wound up a disappointing 23rd, which is a drop-off from his 16th-place showing at Rockingham two weeks ago, but an improvement at his early crash-induced 39th-place exit in the season opener at Daytona.

"It was tough," Vickers said. "We had our ups and downs today. The car was really, really loose and we worked all day to get it better, and finally right there at the end we made some major improvements and we worked our way back up through the field a little bit."

It didn't help that Vickers ran out of gas on the next-to-last lap.

"You're going to have that sometimes," he said. "We came back again to possibly have a top-15 finish from a bad day but unfortunately we ran out of gas. We'll go to the next race and get 'em."

So much for the debut

Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch's much ballyhooed Nextel Cup debut wound up being very disappointing very fast. In fact, Busch lasted all of 16 laps before he called it a day. The 18-year-old Busch scraped the Turn 4 wall with his No. 84 Chevrolet, which threw his rear-end suspension completely out of whack.

"We started off the race extremely tight and I touched the turn 4 wall twice in the first few laps," Busch said. "The first time, I just nudged it, but I pretty much flat-sided it the second time. I literally had my arms crossed, trying to make it turn."

While Busch tried to continue, the damage was already done. He eventually retired after 16 laps with the final diagnosis to his car's problem being a misaligned rear end assembly.

"It's not the way I wanted my first Nextel Cup race to play out, but we'll put it behind us and come back strong at Texas (his next scheduled Cup event) next month."

Still, Busch took some consolation at the response he received from fans and friends on making his Cup debut in his hometown.

"Overall, it was a great experience," he said. "Coming home to race in front of those fans was just awesome. They treated me well all week. I just can't say enough. My family and I really appreciate everyone who came out to support us. I promise to give them a better show the next time around."

Vegas natives scoreboard
While Kyle Busch did not fare well, his brother Kurt had a decent day, finishing ninth, his second top-10 finish in the season's first three races and his first career top-10 showing at his home racetrack, Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Trying as hard as he can to shake finishes of 19th and 20th in the last two races, rookie Brendan Gaughan's race results just keeps getting worse. He ended up 22nd in his hometown.

"(Driving coach) Buddy Baker came in afterwards, and I told him I never wanted to work that hard for a 22nd-place finish again," Gaughan said. "We were exciting to watch a few times (in Sunday's race), but hopefully we'll come back next year and run up front."

Dominating Dodges and Fords
While a Ford won the race, Dodges dominated the weekend. Kasey Kahne led all Dodge drivers with a second-place finish in Sunday's event, one of four Dodge-powered products in the top 10 and seven in the top 18. Joining Kahne in the top 10 were Jamie McMurray (fouth), Casey Mears (seventh) and Rusty Wallace (10th).

Dodge also dominated qualifying for Sunday's race, with four cars among the top 10 starters.

But Fords weren't sold short. Not only did Kenseth drive a Ford to Victory Lane, three other Ford drivers also finished in the top 10: Mark Martin (fifth), Elliott Sadler (sixth) and Kurt Busch (ninth).

Only two Chevrolets were in the top 10, and just three overall in the top 15, with Tony Stewart the highest finisher (third), followed by Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte (eighth) and Jeff Gordon (15th).

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.

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