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Hendrick up front, even without wins

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DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) - One thing's crystal clear as NASCAR's Sprint Cup series heads into its annual Easter break - Hendrick Motorsports looks as strong as ever.

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Don't pay attention to the lack of wins with just Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s season-opening Daytona 500 victory in the ledger. Instead, see three of the Hendrick superstars are in the top five in points with Jeff Gordon leading way, Earnhardt in fourth and six-time series champ Jimmie Johnson fifth.

All four team drivers including Kasey Kahne took a turn leading the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway this Saturday night. Earnhardt and Johnson each led during two green-white-checkered runs at the ''Lady in Black'' before Kevin Harvick's swept past Dale Jr. on the next-to-last lap to take the race.

''I think this is as good as this team has ever been,'' said Earnhardt, still seeking his first series title since joining up with Hendrick.

No one's running as consistently well as Gordon right now. His seventh-place finish at Darlington was his sixth race in the top 10 this season. Those two where he missed? A 13th at Auto Club Speedway in California and a 12th at Martinsville.

Gordon thought he had a strong enough car, but like the rest of his teammates got caught on two new tires at the end and didn't have the grip to challenge Harvick's strong machine equipped with four fresh tires.

''Good to be leading the points, but I feel like (it's) a missed opportunity,'' Gordon said. ''But another great race car and I'm happy about that.''

Kahne's program has struggled so far at 23rd in points and has had finishes of 31st, 22nd and 11th before an accident knocked him from among the leaders at Darlington. He faded to 37th.

Hendrick's consistency up top could be its way into the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. When NASCAR changed its format to emphasize victories, teams and drivers loved the ''win and you're in'' nature of qualifying for the expanded, 16-car playoffs.

But the Sprint Cup series opened with seven different drivers winning its first seven races, a quirk that ended Saturday night with Harvick added to his victory at Phoenix with one at Darlington for his first-year Stewart-Haas Racing program.

Should that trend continue - and remember stellar drivers like Gordon, Johnson, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin are all winless so far - once the series resumes at Richmond International Raceway in two weeks, it'll be on points performance to break ties between one-win racers hoping to make the field.

Biffle felt as if the importance of points won't go away and expected to have several programs tied at one or two victories each needing that edge in points to slip in. ''That focus isn't going away,'' he said.

Johnson has come close to victory several times this season, but will continue to hang his helmet on top finishes.

''Our goal since I've started, has been if we can run in the top five all day, we'll have a shot to win the race,'' he said. ''And it's led to a lot of victories.''

A season ago, it led to Johnson's sixth Sprint Cup title moving him one away from the record shared by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.

Johnson's teammate Gordon has won four of those so those working at the Hendrick race shops know how to achieve those goals.

''We're confident we're going to have a car, if not all four cars, in the chase,'' Johnson said.

Earnhardt looked prepared for a monster season with his victory at Daytona last February and followed that up with runner-up showings in Phoenix and Las Vegas. His second-place at Darlington was his best career finish at a track where his father won nine times.

Earnhardt's got his dad's love of victory so it was easy to see his disappointment when he spoke of coming so close at Darlington. He understands the bigger picture, though, and is glad with his performance this year.

''It hurts a little bit,'' he said. ''Running second is great, but nobody is going to really remember that. But we're proud of it.''

AP NEWS
The Associated Press News Service

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The Associated Press
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