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INDIANAPOLIS — Dale Earnhardt Jr. had his best Brickyard 400 race Sunday with a fourth-place finish, and that was good enough to vault him into the NASCAR Sprint Cup points lead.
Earnhardt now has 731 points, 14 more than previous leader Matt Kenseth, who crashed and finished 35th. Greg Biffle and Sunday’s winner, Jimmie Johnson, remained third and fourth.
It’s the first time since Sept. 19, 2004, that Earnhardt has been in the points lead.
“I’m proud of (being in the lead) because it says a lot about our body of work,” Earnhardt said. “All season long, we’ve been working hard and finishing well. That is symbolic of how we’ve done. I have felt that way about our position in points all season long.”
Earnhardt has nine top-five and 15 top-10 finishes this season, but only one win.
“We need to win more races,” Earnhardt said. “If we want to win the championship, we have to. I imagine we can win a couple races in the Chase. I don’t know if finishing fourth or fifth is going to do it.”
“It’s really awesome that they’re out front,” teammate Jeff Gordon said. “They’ve been consistent, and if they can keep that consistency up and maybe even take it up a notch when the Chase starts, they’re going to be a real threat for the championship. So they’re running good. I’m happy to see it for Junior. I’m really happy to see it for (crew chief) Stevie (Letarte) and that whole team.
“They’ve put a lot of effort into it.”
Edwards remains optimistic
Carl Edwards came agonizingly close to winning a championship last season, falling to Columbus native Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker. But this year, he is going to need a big finish to make the Chase.
Edwards finished 29th Sunday and sits 12th in the points standings, 61 points out of the 10th and final automatic qualifying spot. The 11th and 12th spots are Wild Cards and go to drivers outside the top 10 with the most wins, as long as they are ranked in the top 20 in points.
Edwards has yet to win this season. Four drivers outside the top 10 have at least one win, and Kasey Kahne has two.
“I think it will involve lots of pushing on the right pedal and turning left and going as fast as possible,” Edwards said. “We have to take chances. We can do that. We can race like that. It will actually be a big relief in a way because there is no other choice. I wouldn’t bet against us.”
Hamlin falls back
Denny Hamlin started on the pole and led the first 26 laps. He led again after Lap 42, but fell back to 15th before coming back to finish sixth.
“The Hendrick cars had something going on with the back of their cars that’s unique,” Hamlin said. “Other than that, they were the dominant cars. No one was going to run with them, especially the 48 (Johnson). The 24 (Jeff) Gordon) found something there at the very end that was beneficial.
“We had about a fourth-, fifth-, sixth-place car, and that’s kind of where we ended up,” he said. “Once I got back there, I was able to maintain and make up a little ground, but I wasn’t going to go any further forward than where I was.”
Newman takes 7th
South Bend native Ryan Newman had Stewart-Haas Racing’s highest finish Sunday, placing seventh. That gave the team a pair of top-10 finishes. (Stewart was 10th).
“We finally got a good track position there toward the end, and we were able to keep it,” Newman said. “We just didn’t have quite the speed we needed. We kind of knew that in all the practice sessions, but we didn’t screw it up. We actually made it a little bit better, and we’ll go on.”
Stewart in the pits
Stewart pitted five times in the 160-lap race for a total of 3 minutes, 50.939 seconds. That’s an average of 46.188 seconds per pit stop.
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