DOVER, Del. - The nation's troubled economy was reflected in the attendance at yesterday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway.

The smallest crowd since seating capacity was expanded to 140,000 in 2001 watched the race. The track never announces the actual attendance for races, but a safe estimate is the crowd was under 100,000.

A significant number of vacant seats were visible in the upper levels of the grandstands between Turns 1 and 2 and between Turns 3 and 4.

As the speedway has done for the last few races, sections of grandstands in Turns 2 and 3 were covered with advertising banners.

Attendance has been an issue at all Sprint Cup races this season.

Small step for Dale Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s first race without crew chief Tony Eury Jr. showed improvement. After running as high as third, Earnhardt finished 12th.

"I'm happier," Earnhardt said. "We had the car really good there for most of the race. We got it a little too loose, then [it] got real tight trying to fix it. Track position was real important and we didn't have it at the end of the race."

Team manager Brian Whitesell served as Earnhardt's crew chief yesterday. Lance McGrew will take over on an interim basis starting at Pocono this weekend.

Earnhardt, 18th place in points, is 215 points out of the 12th and final Chase qualifying position. Thirteen races remain before the Chase field is set.

Gordon 'frustrated'

"Frustrating" was Jeff Gordon's description of his weekend. Required to start at the back of the field following his crash during Friday's qualifying, Gordon finished 26th yesterday and lost the points lead to Tony Stewart, after leading the standings for nine of the last 10 races.

"At this point, it's not crucial," Gordon said. "I'm more disappointed that we didn't have a shot at winning the race. Those bonus points are what mean the most right now."

Gordon is a four-time winner at Dover. *