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 JOLIET, Ill. (AP) - Five-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson set out to make a statement at Chicagoland Speedway.
And for a bit, it looked as though Johnson would win the opening race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Even after he faded to third in the closing laps, it was still going to be a strong day for Johnson.
Until he ran out of gas.
Johnson faded to 10th in Monday's rain-delayed race, and wondered what was the difference between his Hendrick Motorsports car and Tony Stewart's winning car. Stewart's Chevrolet is powered by Hendrick Motorsports.
``I can't complain too much,'' Johnson said. ``The car in Victory Lane has the same power, same everything. From my driving style, I've never been all that good with fuel mileage. Not what we wanted.''
Johnson, who led three times for 39 laps, ran out of gas headed to the white flag. That meant he was an entire lap short on gas, and even after crew chief Chad Knaus asked him to conserve, he couldn't save enough despite backing off against Stewart and Matt Kenseth.
``I really felt like I had done enough,'' he said. ``They told me I needed a lap before the run started, and I gave up racing quite a few laps earlier than they started trying to conserve fuel, and I still ran out. So I don't know what I did wrong. I've just got to get better at saving fuel.''
Johnson goes to next weekend's race at New Hampshire ranked eighth in points.
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SPONSOR SHIFT: PepsiCo is expected to announce this week it will use Diet Mountain Dew instead of Amp Energy as the primary sponsor on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car for 16 races next season.
The brand swap was reported Monday by Sports Business Journal.
Amp has been Earnhardt's primary sponsor since he signed with Hendrick Motorsports four years ago. Pepsi has the rights to 20 races as sponsor, and the brand shift is expected to relegate Amp to an associate sponsor for 16 races. Amp would be the primary on four races.
Pepsi has one year remaining on its sponsorship contract with Earnhardt, who originally signed a five-year contract to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet. Earlier this month, the team announced a five-year extension that keeps Earnhardt at HMS at least through 2017.
The sponsor shift should lead to a redesigned paint scheme that will debut at the 2012 season-opening Daytona 500.
Earnhardt, meanwhile, is back in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field this season after a two-year absence. He began Monday's race as the 10th seed in the 12-driver field.
He finished third at Chicago, his best finish since he was second at Kansas 14 races ago, and now heads to Round 2 of the Chase ranked fifth in points.
Although Earnhardt entered the Chase in a drought - he had just one top-10 finish in the previous 13 races - he likes his chances.
``I felt like we would do well in The Chase,'' he said. ``These are good tracks for me. And the tracks where I ran poorly just aren't. If you look at my track record, I don't run good at those tracks. I felt we would rebound and kind of return to the form we started at the beginning of the year.''
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ROUGH START: Jeff Gordon went into the Chase on a roll with three consecutive top-three finishes.
After nearly winning at Richmond, which would have tied him with Kyle Busch as the top-seed in the 12-driver field, he went into the 10-race Chase poised to contend for his fifth title.
Then a rough weekend sent him plummeting in the standings.
Gordon had to make an unscheduled pit stop under green to fix a tire problem, battled back inside the top-10, then ran out of gas in the closing laps. He finished 24th and dropped eight spots in the standings to 11th.
``We struggled all weekend. Something definitely threw us off at this track,'' Gordon said. ``I felt like we got it during the race pretty good a couple of times, but we were fighting track position most of the day, and then we had the problem with the right front.''
All in all, ``it was definitely not the race we wanted to start the Chase off with,'' he said.
But Gordon said he'll go down fighting, and expects to bounce back next week at New Hampshire.
``We're going to fight like crazy these next nine races and we could still get it done,'' he said. ``I mean we're 23 (points) out, we can still get it done from there.''
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NEW CREW: Richard Childress Racing never hesitates to make changes that could benefit its organization, and the opening race in the Chase presented another opportunity.
An RCR spokesman confirmed Sunday morning there had been changes to pit crew personnel, but declined to be specific. Same with Kevin Harvick, who finished second in Monday's race.
``I think there were changes, pit crews changes to make teams better,'' he said. ``I don't know exactly how it shook out.''
But he knew how well it worked, especially after season-long struggles often left him furious with his crew.
``The last pit stop gained three spots, so it went pretty good,'' Harvick said.
So what exactly changed?
Turns out, almost the entire pit crew.
Harvick crew chief Gil Martin said after the race that his team used Clint Bowyer's entire crew. The gasman stayed with Harvick's crew.
``It's easier to switch whole crews because of the simple reason you break up chemistry and you break up what everybody's got going with each other, you just can't do that,'' Martin said.

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