Jimmie Johnson showed why he is a five time champion Sunday as he staged another dominating win leading 243 of the 400 laps to score his eighth NASCAR Sprint Cup win at Dover International Speedway.
Johnson took two tires on a final pit stop with 26 laps to go while his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. took four. Johnson however was able to keep Earnhardt in check to score his fifth win of the season and his first since Daytona in July. The win also broke a tie for all time wins at Dover with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison.
Behind Earnhardt, Joey Logano was third, Jeff Gordon fourth and Kyle Busch fifth.
Earnhardt led from the pole but by lap 25 was encountering lapped traffic and on lap 26, Matt Kenseth who had been chasing Earnhardt was able to pass him as Earnhardt was held up. Earnhardt never lost contact with Kenseth though and on lap 31 he retook the lead.
The first caution of the day came out on lap 37 for debris. The leaders came in for their first stops, some took four tires but the top four back off pit road took only two led by Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray, Martin Truex Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya. Earnhardt who had taken four was fifth, Clint Bowyer, who also took only two tires, gained 10 spots and restarted 8th.
By lap 57 Busch had stretched his lead out to nearly two seconds. Thanks in part to getting only two tires though Busch’s lead began to shrink and on lap 71 Ryan Newman was able to catch and pass him; Earnhardt followed close behind to take over second. Five laps later Earnhardt shot past Newman to retake the lead. By lap 90 Earnhardt’s lead, despite the heavy traffic, was two seconds. Johnson meanwhile had made his way to second. By lap 107 Earnhardt’s lead was up to three seconds.
Green flag stops started on lap 110. Earnhardt started to pit from the lead on lap 117 but missed the entrance to pit road and had to keep going. Lead group cars meanwhile continued to pit under green. Earnhardt hit pit road a lap later.
When the cycle of stops ended, Johnson was in the lead being chased by Kenseth in second. Earnhardt was in 8th.
“I take responsibility for getting a little too eager coming onto pit road for that green flag stop,” Earnhardt said. “We’re lucky we didn’t have more trouble through that whole deal. I didn’t know what the heck the rules are for that, so I was figuring we got off pretty light.”
After a long green flag run the second caution of the day came out on lap 165, again for debris. Kenseth won the race off pit road with Johnson second.
Kenseth held the lead by nearly a second until lap 198 when Johnson caught and passed him. The fourth caution came out on lap 226 when Brad Keselowski suffered engine issues and left fluid on the apron of the track. The reigning champion was 12th when the failure occurred, and he went directly to the garage. He would return on lap 269 but finished 37th.
The leaders came in for pit stops. Johnson led off pit road with all the leaders taking four tires.
The restart came on lap 235 with Johnson shooting out to the lead while Kenseth and Earnhardt dueled for second. Two laps later Earnhardt pulled ahead to take over the second spot. Kenseth was shuffled back to fourth as Kyle Busch took over third.
Earnhardt began chipping away at Johnson’s lead around lap 250. Behind them, Busch, Kenseth and Jeff Gordon were running together and contesting the remainder of the top five. Gordon would take over third place on lap 266. By lap 297, Earnhardt had cut Johnson’s lead to a half a second. Just as Earnhardt caught Johnson for the lead, Johnson dove in to start a cycle of green flag stops. Earnhardt took the lead but came in for his stop soon after, but he was caught behind slower traffic as he entered and lost more spots.
After the round of stops, Johnson retook the lead with Earnhardt in fourth. Kenseth took over second, Gordon third. Johnson soon stretched his lead out to 2.5 seconds over Kenseth. With 50 laps to go, Johnson was leading by five seconds, but all the leaders including Johnson knew that all would need one more stop for fuel.
A caution for debris on lap 368 changed the fuel mileage race into a dash to the finish. The key would was the final pit stop. The top three led by Johnson took only two tires as did Gordon who beat Kenseth off pit road. Earnhardt’s crew elected to change four tires and he came back out in fourth. Those behind Earnhardt also took four.
The restart came with 26 laps to go. Johnson took the lead while Earnhardt shot to second. Joey Logano went past Gordon for third. It didn’t take long for Earnhardt to reel in Johnson but he couldn’t quite catch Johnson as the laps wound down. Gordon and Kenseth began to drop back as those with four tires began to catch up.
Johnson with his two tires meanwhile was able to run different lines and hold station over Earnhardt and his four. Johnson said he was worried about Earnhardt.
“What I saw of his car on four tires earlier in the race, he was pretty quick,” Johnson said. “That was really our weakest point, was the first five to ten laps, then our car would come in and was incredibly fast at that point. I didn’t want to lose control at the end of the race with 20 some to go and all that. So the pressure was on.”
Despite lapped traffic, Johnson was able to maintain his lead and held on for the win.
“I ran my guts out to stay ahead of him,” Johnson said. “Any switch I could flip in the car that was a fan that might help the car turn my brake bias, everything and anything I could twist, turn, pull, push, I did, then just drove the shit out of that thing.”
Kevin Harvick was sixth, Kenseth held on for seventh; Newman was eighth, Greg Biffle ninth and Bowyer tenth.
Johnson was able to move into second in the points and cut Kenseth’s lead to eight. Busch dropped one spot to third, Harvick gained two spots to fourth, Gordon moved four to fifth. Biffle, Newman, Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Earnhardt round out the top ten; Carl Edwards dropped seven spots after he suffered mechanical issues with 25 laps to go. Kasey Kahne also suffered mechanical issues late and finished 37th and remains in 12th.
“When you look up, it’s everybody that finished in front of you,” Kenseth said. “It’s all cars that you’re racing for points. Overall, for how bad I felt like we struggled with the car, that was a decent finish.”
The series heads to Kansas Speedway for next Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400.
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