After a disappointing 25th place finish in last weekend’s Chase opener in New Hampshire, Jimmie Johnson showed up in Dover in championship form. A five-time winner at the Monster Mile, Johnson sat the No. 48 Chevrolet on the pole Friday afternoon and put it in Victory Lane for win number six at the end of the day.
Leading five times for a total of 191 laps, Johnson also locked up 10 bonus points for leading the most laps, moving him to second in the standings only 35 points behind Denny Hamlin.
“We met our goals this weekend, moved up a lot today,” Johnson said. “I think today shows you, I saw the 11 (Hamlin) finish ninth and we're only 35 out. We look at 80, 90 points, whatever it is, think it's a lot. It really isn't. I mean, you finish 10th or 15th, you lose 60, 70 points. There's eight races left, and the points can shake up a lot. I think it's going to be as exciting of a Chase as everyone is hoping for.”
Taking the lead on the initial green flag, Johnson held the top spot for the first 13 laps until AJ Allmendinger put the No. 43 out front. For roughly the next 157 laps, Allmendinger paced the field through two rounds of green flag stops as the leader.
Leading more laps on Sunday than in his entire career up to that point, Allmendinger’s day took a turn for the worse when he began fighting a loose condition.
Getting progressively worse, and with Johnson charging behind him, Allmendinger brought the No. 43 to pit road from the lead on Lap 172. The team found a washer stuck in the right rear tire, which caused a slow leak. Rejoining the race in 27th, one lap down, Allmendinger spent the remainder of the event working his way back to the front. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver finished the day in 10th after leading a career-high 143 laps.
“I knew the right-rear was going down and after that you’re just fighting back the rest of the day,” Allmendinger said. “We’re getting really good at fighting back and making good finishes out of a problem that happens. I would like to have a consistent race one of these days, but we’ve got fast race cars and we’re getting there. They saw us lead. They saw that we had the speed there.”
“With the momentum that team has had, the confidence he is getting in his abilities in a stock car, he's a real threat and was a real threat today,” Johnson said of Allmendinger.
Once Allmendinger was out of the picture, the No. 48 took command of the race.
That all changed when the leaders hit pit road under the final caution of the day on Lap 291. After closing in on Johnson on the race track, Kyle Busch’s pit crew finished the job for him on pit road, getting the No. 18 out ahead of the No. 48.
On the restart, Johnson spun the tires on the bottom lane which allowed Busch to take off with the lead, bringing teammate Joey Logano with him to second. Attempting to become the first driver in NASCAR history to sweep every race held at one track, Busch set sail in the lead.
However, as the track continued to change, Busch fought a loose race car and Johnson closed the gap. Making a move under Busch in Turn 1, Johnson reassumed the lead on Lap 339 and never looked back.
“There through about lap 300 or so, I thought we had a car capable of winning,” Busch, who finished sixth, said. “We were fast. If I drove it a little bit over my head and a little harder, it was faster than the 48 (Johnson), but I about wrecked a couple times so I just backed up and rode there. Waited for another pit stop to try to adjust on it and we did and we couldn’t get the tight back out of it.”
The win moves Johnson to second in the Chase standings, now only 35 points out of the lead. While some saw last week’s result as a sign of further struggles by the No. 48 team, Sunday’s win reaffirmed why most drivers in the Chase still feel Johnson is the guy to beat.
Right now, though, Hamlin and the No. 11 team are the ones to beat for this title. Coming off a second place finish in New Hampshire, Hamlin looked to Dover as his biggest challenge in the Chase. One of his worst tracks on the schedule, the JGR driver was simply hoping to come out of the day with a solid finish and the points lead, and that is exactly what they did.
Coming home ninth, Hamlin currently holds the largest points lead at this point of the Chase. Unnerved by Johnson’s victory, Hamlin’s focus remains on the bigger championship picture.
“We wanted to get out of here with a decent finish and just be within shouting range,” Hamlin said. “The original goal was to be 80 points back after Kansas. Well, that goal has been shifted now to, ‘Let's be at least even when we leave Kansas,’ then we feel like we can beat those guys in the long run hopefully. If not, we're not going to keep those guys from winning, they're going to. They're going to win. That's the characteristics of that team. Anytime they're faced with adversity, they come and make a strong statement. That's been their MO for a long time.”
While Johnson’s Chase picture brightened Sunday in Dover, a number of drivers took severe hits in the standings, possibly losing grip on the chance to battle for the championship.
Starting 25th and looking to overcome running short last week in New Hampshire, Tony Stewart knew he had to take more chances Sunday in Dover if he wanted to make up ground in the Chase. When the leaders headed to pit road for the first time under caution on Lap 39, Stewart took two tires while the rest of the field took four. The move got the No. 14 Chevrolet track position, but it backfired once the older right side tires began to fade.
One of the first cars to pit under the first round of green flag pit stops around Lap 115, Stewart’s day got even worse when he was caught speeding getting onto pit road. Stewart brought the car back to pit road for a pass through penalty and fell to 35th, three laps down. Working his way back towards to the top-25, Stewart wound up 21st, two laps down when the checkered flag fell.
Another Chase driver that had issues getting onto pit road was Roush Fenway Racing’s Matt Kenseth. As green flag pit stops got underway around the Lap 189 mark, Kenseth looked to bring his No. 17 Ford down for service but locked the left front tire up as he slowed. Knowing he would miss the commitment cone, Kenseth kept the car on the track, but abused the tire too much. The left front tire blew out on the frontstretch, bringing out the caution and causing heavy damage to the left front of the car. Kenseth was able to rally and finished the day 18th, one lap down.
“I don’t know if I got all that stuff on the tires or what, but I stopped at the same point I did the other time and just couldn’t quite get stopped,” Kenseth said. “I should have just bailed for pit road and hoped I made it, but it’s 100 percent my fault. I just got in there too hard and it locked the left-front up. I tried to go around and the tire blew out.”
Kenseth’s problems also hurt teammate Greg Biffle, who had just pitted under green. Caught two laps down, Biffle was never able to recover from the setback in the middle stage of the race.
“We were running on the lead lap and I thought we were a top-10 car,” Biffle said. “It’s unfortunate. That probably right there was kind of our chase hopes. We’re not out of it, but those two finishes are not a way to start the chase off.”
Clint Bowyer was distracted all week long by a penalty handed out by NASCAR and the controversy that followed. On Sunday, Bowyer lost the car off Turn 2, nearly saved it but tagged the wall. Fighting a tire rub, Bowyer eventually brought the No. 33 to pit road for service. While on pit road, Bowyer was caught speeding and forced to come back in for a pass through penalty. The winner in Loudon ended the day in 25th, three laps down and was the lowest finishing Chase driver.
To add insult to injury, NASCAR selected the No. 33 as the random car to take back to the NASCAR R&D Center for further inspection.
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