In case anyone doubted Jimmie Johnson’s title chances after a disappointing 25th-place finish in the first Chase race at New Hampshire, the defending four-time champion showed them just how lethal his 48 team can be on Sunday. Johnson sat on the pole, led the most laps and won the AAA 500 from Dover International Speedway.
“It feels great,” Johnson said of the win in Victory Lane. “Last week didn’t turn out how we [wanted it to], but that’s racing and it’s going to happen in the Chase.
“I may not look all that excited right now, but there’s this huge weight off my shoulders that we were able to come win a race in the Chase, rebound from last weekend and we’re back in this thing — and I’m really, really excited!”
Johnson closed on points leader Denny Hamlin in the Chase standings. In a 92-point hole after the New Hampshire event when a late-race loose wheel doomed his day, Johnson now sits second, only 35 points behind Hamlin. However, Hamlin knew Dover would be a tough venue for his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team, and was happy to hold serve heading to Kansas Speedway still in control of the points lead.
“I feel good about it,” Hamlin said, when asked about the top-10 performance. “This is a huge obstacle for us — this track has bitten us in the Chase the last four years. So to get out of here keeping the point lead at least … this was our biggest obstacle we had to fight. From here on out I feel like it’ll be better.”
Johnson, who led a race-high 191 laps, held a 1.7-second lead over Jeff Burton as the field cycled through the final round of green flag pit stops with 37 circuits remaining. Johnson was burned by a pit road speeding penalty in the same situation in May at Dover, when he went from the lead to a lap down and 16th. However, the speed was right and the stop flawless, and Johnson emerged with a 1.9-second lead. He never looked back, leading for the remainder of the event en route to his 53rd-career win and sixth at Dover.
Burton held on for second, and is seventh in the standings, 80 points back. Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5. Kyle Busch, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman, Hamlin and AJ Allmendinger comprised the sixth-10th spots.
Burton’s runner-up showing was vindication of sorts for his Richard Childress Racing team. Childress’ No. 33 bunch and driver Clint Bowyer were docked 150 championship points after their race-winning New Hampshire car failed a post-race inspection at NASCAR’s R&D Center. A war of words and crumpled sheet metal ensued at Dover, when Hamlin questioned the legality of Childress’ other two cars, those of Burton and Kevin Harvick. Harvick sought revenge during a Saturday morning practice session, bumping Hamlin’s car in the opening lap, which required cosmetic damage on both machines to be repaired.
It was a rough day for many of the Chasers in Dover. Jeff Gordon lost valuable track position during the final round of pit stops due to a dropped lug nut and settled for 11th after running in the top 10 most of the day. He sits 83 back of Hamlin in the standings. Harvick fell three spots to fifth, 65 points back, after a 15th-place run.
Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth may have suffered fatal blows to their title hopes. Each encountered issues throughout the day — from Bowyer’s pit road speeding penalties, Biffle’s out-of-sequence pit stop, Stewart’s tire strategy gone bad and Kenseth’s blown Goodyear. None of the four finished on the lead lap, and all find themselves at least 140 points in the title hole.