DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the lead early in the Daytona 500, there was a raucous roar all around the famed speedway.
When he hit the wall late, there was an agonizing groan.
It wasn't what Earnhardt — or his legion of faithful fans — wanted in the Great American Race. It was, however, fitting considering how the season opener went for Hendrick Motorsports.
"Had as much fun as we could under the circumstances," Earnhardt said.
His teammates couldn't even say that.
Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon had lengthy trips to the garage, and Mark Martin faded from contention in the final laps. Throw in Earnhardt's ride to the infield care center, and the Daytona 500 was one to forget for team owner Rick Hendrick and his powerhouse team.
"Very disappointing," Gordon said. "It's definitely not what we wanted. It's disappointing when you don't have a shot in the Daytona 500, especially when you have as good a car and team as we all do."
Johnson, Gordon and Martin were involved in a 14-car wreck early. Earnhardt, racing 10 years after his father's death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, missed that one.
He stayed in contention most of the race and had fans on the edge of their seats thinking Junior might end up in Victory Lane a decade after that fateful finish at Daytona.
But Earnhardt wrecked shortly after a green-white-checkered restart. David Ragan and Ryan Newman got together. Newman hit the wall, and Earnhardt's car quickly became collateral damage.
Earnhardt finished 24th, extending his winless streak to 94 races. He was three spots ahead of Johnson and four in front of Gordon, whose winless streak now stands at 65.
Johnson, the five-time defending Sprint Cup champion, was 19 laps behind race winner Trevor Bayne. Gordon, the four-time series champion who started on the front row, was 35 laps back.
Martin enjoyed Hendrick's best finish, a 10th-place showing that came after his trouble.
Martin was three laps behind after sustaining some minor damage in the big wreck early. He made a strong comeback, taking advantage of NASCAR's free-pass rule to get back on the lead lap. He was running in the top five late but couldn't keep up with the lead pack.
Martin extended his winless streak in the Daytona 500. He's now 0 for 27.
Gordon, meanwhile, questioned the aggressiveness of his fellow drivers, saying the two-car tandems that have become the norm during Speedweeks were dicier than expected at nearly 200 mph.
"What I don't quite understand is why guys are doing it three-wide, three-deep running for 28th," Gordon said. "They need to let it thin out a little. As soon as it thins out, then go to it, and it can be very safe and pretty harm-free.
"But you see them, and they're pushing and shoving up the middle down the back straightaway, and you're like, 'What are they doing?"'
Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip started the 14-car melee by running into the back of teammate David Reutimann. Reutimann spun sideways and collected several cars in his wake, including the three Hendrick drivers.
"Yeah, it's tough," Johnson said. "But we made up a couple of spots."
The crash ended an otherwise solid Speedweeks for Hendrick Motorsports. It was a promising start after team owner Rick Hendrick made significant offseason changes to his organization.
Even though Johnson won his fifth consecutive championship, Hendrick felt his team fell way behind in 2010. Gordon, Martin and Earnhardt Jr. were winless.
The mediocre results came a year after Johnson, Martin and Gordon gave Hendrick an unprecedented sweep of the top three spots in the final points standings.
So Hendrick responded by moving everyone except Johnson and longtime crew chief Chad Knaus.
Johnson's team got an adjustment, too. Hendrick shook up Johnson's entire pit crew in hopes of fixing the most noticeable chink in the defending champ's armor.
All four of the drivers were looking for confidence and early season momentum following the changes. Instead, they left Daytona wondering what happened.
"It is such a bummer," Gordon said. "We had such a fast race car, such a great race team. You have to take what you can from this."
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