By Reid Spencer – NASCAR Wire Service – Dover, Del. – Jimmie Johnson’s run toward a possible sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship shifted into high gear Sunday at Dover International Speedway.
On two fresh tires to polesitter Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s four, Johnson held off his Hendrick Motorsports teammate during a 26-lap green-flag run to the finish of the AAA 400 and made a significant dent in the series lead of Matt Kenseth, who finished seventh.
Johnson picked up his fifth victory of the season, his record eighth at the Monster Mile — breaking a tie with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison — and the 65th of his career. The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet vaulted over fifth-place finisher Kyle Busch into second in the Chase standings, eight points behind Kenseth.
Johnson, however, had plenty of cause for concern when he lined up for the final restart with Earnhardt right behind him — on four fresh tires.
“Two (tires) worked good for us in practice,” Johnson said. “And believe me, I wanted to see four tires line up in the fourth or fifth row. When they lined up right behind me, I thought I was going to have my hands full. And I really did. Junior drove a whale of a race, and track position really gave me the advantage I needed to hold him off.”
Johnson also took a moment to enjoy the magnitude of his record-breaking win.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “To do anything Bobby or Richard has done is quite an accomplishment. We’ve had a few sneak away from us here, too, over the years. I’m just happy to get that done and be the sole leader of race wins here. It’s a very special day.”
Johnson held a lead of nearly five seconds when NASCAR called the fourth caution of the race for debris in the form of a spring rubber that had dislodged from a car and landed on the concrete racing surface in Turn 3.
With every lead-lap car short on fuel — with the possible exception ofClint Bowyer’s No. 15 Toyota — the yellow presented a welcome opportunity to refuel. Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, opted to change right-side tires only, while Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, called for a four-tire change.
Earnhardt restarted fourth on Lap 375 of 400 and quickly rocketed into second place, but couldn’t catch the five-time champion.
Joey Logano ran third, followed by Jeff Gordon and Busch, as Chase drivers claimed the top 10 finishing positions.
Earnhardt, whose winless streak reached 48 races, relinquished the race lead during a green-flag pit stop on Lap 119 after missing the entrance to pit road on the previous lap. The snafu cost Earnhardt seven positions and 13 seconds on the track, and though a caution on Lap 164 bunched the field and enabled him to make up lost ground, Earnhardt couldn’t mount a challenge to Johnson’s dominance after that.
On a later stop, Earnhardt lost time getting to his pit stall when he had to slow behind Mark Martin’s Chevrolet. Earnhardt conceded that the issues on pit road, particularly the first one, may have changed the outcome of the race.
“Yeah, if you really look at the race as a whole, they did cost us a little bit, at least the mistake I made missing pit road completely. We had the lead, gave up the lead. Jimmie had the lead and was able to take advantage of that clean air when it counted.
“If I had not given up that track position, had a smart enough race to keep the lead when it counted right at the end, we might have won the race. It would have been hard to get by us, just like it was (hard) to get by Jimmie.
“I think missing the commitment cone was a big factor in us not finishing one spot ahead of where we are. But the other pit stop wasn’t that big a deal. I came on pit road about as hard as I could. The 14, Mark, was running maybe five, 10 miles an hour slow in the first couple of (pit road timing) segments. I don’t know that cost us a ton of time.”
Chase drivers Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards were casualties of bad luck and a broken part, respectively. Busch was caught two laps down after an early green-flag pit stop that preceded the second caution on Lap 164. He finished 21st and dropped to ninth in the standings, 55 points behind Kenseth.
Edwards, who entered the race fourth in points, took his car to the garage on Lap 377 with broken hub, finished 35th and plummeted seven spots to 11th in points, 65 out of the lead.
Kasey Kahne (13th place) suffered engine problems with 10 laps to go, the second week in a row he failed to finish on the lead lap.
More of the same tough luck he’s seen all season showed itself at Dover for Brad Keselowski, who missed the Chase just a season removed from winning his first Cup championship. On Lap 225 his No. 2 Penske Racing Ford was forced to the garage after a part in his rear-end housing burned up, spewing fluid on the track and bringing out the third caution of the day.
“They noticed a lot of oil in the wheel well, so we tried to get off the track as fast as we could with the Miller Lite Ford to not bring out a yellow, but obviously wasn’t quite quick enough,” Keselowski said. “We’re getting all of our bad luck out of the way this year, so watch out next year.”
Keselowski finished 37th.
The series now makes its way back to Kansas Speedway, where Kenseth earned his second victory of the season. Catch the Hollywood Casino 400 (ESPN, 2 p.m. ET) next Sunday.
Photo Credit: Justin Heiman/Getty Images