FONTANA, Calif. - A series of unexplained flat tires turned the second half of Sunday's NASCAR Nextel Cup race into little more than an extended test session for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
After starting 40th, his worst qualifying position since the final race of the 2000, Junior climbed into the top 25 before his left flat tire went flat on lap 36.
He got back out and was getting into a good rhythm when the left front tire went again on lap 58. Before it was over, Earnhardt had to make four stops for repairs, including replacing the fender braces which were damaged when the first flat tire shredded.
Earnhardt wound up 32nd, 13 laps behind winner Greg Biffle. That dropped Earnhardt to 14th in the NASCAR Nextel Cup points, the first time he has been out of the top 10 in 71 races.
"I know it's a cliche when you don't run good, but we really did test some things there in the second half of the race," said Junior, running only his second race with new crew chief Pete Rondeau. "I think both Pete and I learned a lot. I think we learned some things that will help us down the race. It's a long season and we'll only get better."
ENGINE FAILURE: Teams with engines built by Hendrick Motorsports had a very difficult day.
Joe Nemechek and MBV/MB2 Motorsports teammate Scott Riggs, who use Hendrick powerplants, both went out with engine failures, as did Hendrick drivers Brian Vickers and Terry Labonte. Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon stayed in the hunt until his Hendrick engine lost a cylinder just 13 laps from the end. He held on to finish 30th.
The only Hendrick drivers to avoid engine problems were second-place finisher Jimmie Johnson and 19-year-old pole winner Kyle Busch, who scraped the wall early but held on to finish 23rd, one lap down.
Nemechek, who led 63 laps and was out front when his engine lost power, said, "They knew we were here. I could go anywhere I wanted to go - high or low. We had an awesome day.
"The engines are incredible and I don't know what broke. It's not very often we break anything."
RUDD THUD: The communication system connecting homebound crew chief Michael "Fatback" McSwain with his crew worked just fine. Ricky Rudd's car didn't.
After McSwain underwent surgery Friday for a disc injury, the Wood Brothers team arranged for him to be in contact with the crew via phone and two-way radio from his North Carolina home.
But Rudd's No. 21 Ford was banged up in an early race collision with Bill Elliott. Rudd then had a motor failure that put him out of the race after 145 of 250 laps, a 41st-place finish.
"I think that was going to work out fine," Rudd said of the communications system with McSwain. "They made a few adjustments after the car got banged up. But after Bill got into us, we were just riding it out for the points. Some days it's not your day and definitely today was not ours."
It wasn't any better for Elliott, the former series champion now driving a limited schedule. After bouncing off the wall and into Rudd, he ran several more laps before eventually blowing a tire and crashing hard on lap 24, finishing last in the 43-car field.
MAGIC MOMENTS: Basketball Hall of Famer Magic Johnson is starting to really get the feel of stock car racing.
Johnson, recruited by NASCAR last year to co-chair the organization's Diversity Program, aiming to bring minorities to the sport as both participants and spectators, came to his first races last year. He acknowledged he knew little about the internal workings or the history of the sport.
His father filled Johnson in on NASCAR's background.
"When I told him I was part of NASCAR, boy, we spent two hours. He took me through the history," said Magic, who was at California Speedway Sunday to say the traditional "Gentlemen, start your engines" for the Auto Club 500 and play host to 90 young minority men and women from the Los Angeles area.
"To have these young people experience what I experienced last year is great," Johnson said "As those engines start up, boy, a rush went through my whole body and I knew that I was in store for something special."
He said 25 percent of the TV audience for NASCAR races is made up of minorities.
"They watch the races at home," Johnson said. "They just haven't been coming to the track so, when you look at minorities, they enjoy NASCAR as much as anybody else.
"The main thing is to introduce it to the young people. I think the kids have always seen the cars or the races on TV but have never seen a car live. So it will be thrill for them to just see it live."
Since his retirement from basketball, Johnson has been a successful businessman, using his own company to stimulate economic growth and development in urban areas around the country. That includes the 70 Starbucks Coffee locations and five movie theaters he owns.
SPARK PLUGS: NASCAR's new electronic timing system, which handed out 14 pit road speeding violations at Daytona, added three more Sunday. Jason Leffler, Michael Waltrip and Ryan Newman were all hit with drivethrough penalties for exceeding the 55 mph limit on pit road.... California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger was front and center before Sunday's race, drawing a big cheer from the mostly homegrown crowd, greeting the drivers onstage during prerace introductions and waving the green flag to start the race.... The Automobile Club of Southern California has signed a three-year agreement to continue as title sponsor of the Auto Club 500.... By adding a second California Speedway race to the Cup schedule last year and moving the opening event from April to February, track officials found themselves having to sell tickets to three major stock car races in nine months. The first two had sellout crowds of 110,000, while Sunday's race drew an estimated 95,000.
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