Johnson Back In Chase Hunt At Dover
DOVER, Del. — Jimmie Johnson didn’t let the taste of a 25th-place finish last week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway fester in his mind long.
The four-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion took charge in the second half of the AAA 400 at Dover Int’l Speedway in route a 2.637-second victory —his sixth of the season.
Richard Childress Racing’s Jeff Burton finished second, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Joey Logano third, Penske Racing’s Kurt Busch fourth and Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards finished fifth.
Entering the one-mile concrete oval, each of the twelve Chase for the Cup contenders knew the Monster Mile would be a turning point in their quest for the championship.
For Johnson, that meant seizing the opportunity to make up 57 points in his effort to claim his fifth straight title.
For other chase contenders it meant handling adversity.
Busch, RCR’s Clint Bowyer, Stewart-Hass Racing’s Tony Stewart, Hendrick Motorsports’ Jeff Gordon and Roush-Fenway driver Matt Kenseth all made costly mistakes during the race—each on or entering pit road.
Johnson did not.
He was patient when Richard Petty Motorsports driver A.J. Allmendinger set a blistering pace during the first 170 laps before he had a right-rear tire go down.
He knew there was time — and with Allmendinger not in the Chase, there was little pressure to pursue the No. 43 hard.
“Early in the race, I just had to push my car way too hard to run that pace,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if the pace led to the problems he had but in past experience for me here, I knew I would run the tires off the car if I ran it that hard so we played it smart.”
So as Allmendinger led, Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports crew worked on his No. 48 Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet to adjust for track conditions that changed from overcast to sun back to overcast.
“It was a challenging weekend to say the least,” Johnson said. “The tire Goodyear brought back is the same as it was in the spring, it blackened up the track in a hurry but really made the track challenging after 30 or 40 laps. The rubber would start building up on the track and create handling issues for the race car. You couldn’t tune to it. The car would just react different and do weirdly things when you ran over those areas of the black patches. I had to fall back on my dirt racing background and I think that helped me some.”
But when it counted most, Johnson had the car to beat.
During the final set of green-flag pit stops, Johnson’s biggest challenger appeared to be Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 driven by Kyle Busch. He led from lap 293 to 338.
But after the final pit stop of the day, Busch fell to sixth place as he battled a tight handling race car.
That opened the door for Richard Childress Racing driver Jeff Burton. The No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet was the fastest car on the track at times during the final 75 laps, but he could not erase Johnson’s lead of more than two seconds in the closing laps.
“We just kept working all day to get the grip level right,” Burton said. “I thought the track changed a lot. My guys did a great job of adjusting to the track and getting the car better at the right time. About halfway through that next-to-last run, my car just got really happy and took off.”
Kurt Busch overcame a penalty for speeding entering pit road during the third caution period on lap 189 to finish fourth in his No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge — 59 points behind NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points leader Denny Hamlin.
Others Chase contenders were not so fortunate.
Clint Bowyer struggled throughout the 400-mile event, hitting the wall on lap 158 and was penalized twice for speeding on pit road. After claiming a win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway where his No. 33 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet did not pass post-race inspection, Bowyer finished 25th.
Roush-Fenway driver Matt Kenseth also struggled to recover from a blown right front tire caused when he locked up his brakes trying to enter pit road on lap 187 to finish 18th.
Early in the 400-lap race, neither Johnson nor Burton appeared able to match the pace set by Allmendinger.
But after leading 143 laps during the first half of the race, Allmendinger had a right rear tire leak that forced the Richard Petty Motorsports driver to make an early pit stop—a caution moments later trapped the No. 43 down a lap. Though the driver of the Insignia/HDTV-sponsored Ford Fusion got back on the lead lap during the caution on lap 189. He never got back to the front of the packing, finishing 10th.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Hamlin finished ninth to retain a 35-point advantage over second-place Johnson.
“It was a mediocre day,” Hamlin said. “If you would have told me I would have taken a 35-point lead out of Dover I would have been ok with that.”
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver of the FedEx Toyota entered the race at the Monster Mile with a 45-point cushion over Richard Childress Racing’s Kevin Harvick.