Sunday afternoon in Dover, Jimmie Johnson led 207 laps, Carl Edwards led 117 laps and Matt Kenseth led only 33, but it was Kenseth that led the last one. Always a threat on the Monster Mile, Kenseth used pit strategy late in the race to score his second victory of the year and Roush Fenway Racing’s ninth win at Dover.
Although it appeared as if the race would come down to a battle between Johnson, Edwards and Clint Bowyer, the final round of pit stops changed the entire complexion of the race. When Bowyer led the field to pit road for the final time under caution on Lap 365, seven teams opted to take two tires, while Mark Martin stayed out.
While many expected Bowyer, Edwards and Johnson to make their way back through the field with four tires, Kenseth had other plans.
Moving past Martin for the lead on Lap 368, Kenseth drove away as the two tire call gave the No. 17 the track position needed late in the race. With passing so hard around the concrete mile, Bowyer, Edwards and Johnson struggled to make their way through traffic as Kenseth pulled away to the win.
“Honestly I was sitting on the track and thinking that we should stay out and get clean air and try it because I knew we wouldn’t win if we took four,” Kenseth said. “Jimmy (Fennig, crew chief) wanted four but as I was driving down pit road I thought maybe we could compromise. While I was on the jack I asked if he was sure we didn’t want to try two and he said to put on two. It was really Jimmy’s call and just a suggestion by me. It was tough to pass on top of that rubber out there. We had a lot of power and these guys did a good job with the car.”
As the rubber laid into the track, even the best cars on the track struggled with the handling. With passing becoming increasingly difficult as the race closed in on the final run, track position became much more important than four fresh tires.
“I knew we were outnumbered once we came off pit road and saw so many guys who had taken two and one or two that didn’t stop, so at that time I knew we were in trouble,” Johnson said after finishing ninth. “The numbers just don’t work in your favor, especially at this track so it was really a great race for the 33 (Bowyer), the 99 (Edwards) and us and we finished like 7th, 8th, 9th or whatever it was so we had a great day, had a great race car and led a lot of laps and had great stops on pit road and we are doing things that we need to with this Lowe’s Chevrolet but I would love to be over there in victory lane but we will have to do that when we come back in the fall.”
For Edwards, it was the second time in two weeks late race pit strategy ruined a potential race winning run. One of the strongest cars in the final 100 laps, Edwards was never able to make it back to the front and battled Bowyer side-by-side to the checkered flag. Unable to get by the No. 33, Edwards finished seventh and slightly extended his points lead heading into the All-Star weekend.
“I didn’t have any choice in it really, that is up to the guys up on the box,” Edwards said of the four tire call. “That is too tough of a choice to make right there and I don’t blame Bob Osborne (crew chief) one bit. I thought we would be able to march up through there and I thought the race would be between Clint and I. I did see a couple cars go fast early on two tires but I really felt we were going to have something. If we had had a caution who know what would have happened. You can’t look back, you have to look forward. We still have the points lead and the fastest car here today. Everybody did a good job on the Aflac Ford and a teammate won, so that is good.”
While Bowyer, Edwards and Johnson struggled to get back to the front, Marcos Ambrose’s Ford came to life on two tires. Lining up sixth on the final restart of the day, Ambrose was able to power to the front and hold off Kyle Busch before closing in on Mark Martin for second. Scoring his best finish of the year and third top 10, Ambrose is encouraged by his strong runs as of late.
“I’m really excited that our team is learning, they’re learning me, I’m learning them. I’m learning how these cars work,” he said. “This result today I’m really excited about because I think it’s going to lead to a great Charlotte, Pocono, Indy, all these great big tracks coming. I feel like our team is suited to those tracks.”
Aside from the day’s late-race pit strategy, perhaps the biggest surprise of the race came for those watching FOX’s broadcast at home. After years of complaints from fans about late-race commercial breaks and calls for an IndyCar-style split screen, FOX ran a split screen commercial as the race heated up with 25 laps to go.
Unannounced and a surprise to many, FOX told the Associated Press, “Three ardent NASCAR on FOX supporters, Sprint, Pizza Hut and Fed Ex, all agreed to work with us with the spots they planned to run in the race’s final break. The plan now is to evaluate the execution with the advertisers before we decide whether to try it again this season.”
As soon as the split screen commercial began, Twitter seemed to explode with praise and thanks from fans and media alike. With this being something fans have been extremely vocal about for years, hopefully Sunday’s late-race surprise becomes as regular as the double-file restarts and green-white-checkered finishes.