Last May at Dover seemed like business as usual for Jimmie Johnson. A top-five run most of the day turned victorious on a restart in NASCAR Overtime cut short by a crash on the backstretch. Two good turns negated a dominant performance by Kyle Larson and put the No. 48 in Victory Lane for the third time in 13 races. As Kevin Harvick would say, the “golden horseshoe” was very much still attached to the No. 48 team.
Little did anyone know the bottom was about to fall out.
It’s been 33 races since that last win for Johnson, the longest drought of his 16-year Cup career. Since that Dover victory, the 42-year-old has finished inside the top five only twice: at this track in the fall and Bristol a few weeks back. He’s led just 45 laps during that stretch, none of them in 2018 and sits a career-worst 14th in the points standings. Once a foregone conclusion to win the series title, Johnson is simply struggling to make the playoffs.
And, just like that, with a flurry of big-name retirements Johnson’s also the oldest full-time driver in the series. At age 42, is his bid for a record eighth NASCAR Cup championship hitting a wall?
Dover’s a great place to find out. Johnson has 32 career starts here and finished in the top 10 or better an astonishing 71.9 percent of the time. He holds NASCAR records in victories (11) and laps led (3,105); he has wins here in four of his last nine starts. The No. 48 owns Dover like few drivers ever dominate a racetrack.
But what Johnson doesn’t have is the fastest car. Chevrolet’s new Camaro has been a clunker since February’s Daytona 500; they’ve gone 0-for-9 as just one driver, Kyle Larson, is inside the top 10 in Cup points. Larson also won the pole for Sunday’s race while Johnson? He qualified a disappointing 19th.
This challenge remains what crew chief Chad Knaus lives for. But the Johnson-Knaus duo is in its 17th year together, longer than many marriages and a lifetime for a driver/crew chief relationship. Hendrick Motorsports has gone through a tsunami of change the past few seasons, with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne either retiring or leaving the company. Some believe their time together has run its course; no sponsorship for 2019 thickens the plot.
But it’s times like these when both Johnson and Knaus rise above to be at their best. The beauty of the sport’s newish playoff format is you don’t have to be peaking until September. Just one victory is all that’s needed to lock down the postseason and turn this summer into a test session this HMS Chevrolet team desperately needs.
That’s why Sunday is so important for Johnson. Playoff bubble could become postseason certainty with a 12th win at the Monster Mile. Worst case, simply leading a lap could be a boost heading to perhaps his second-best track: Charlotte at the end of the month.
Dover, then becomes a referendum on just how bad things are at the No. 48. Can Johnson and Knaus pull a rabbit out of their hat one more time?
48th AAA 400
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Dover International Speedway (Dover, Del.)
TV: FOX Sports 1
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Team Penske
Joey Logano, featured here last week, broke through with a trip to Victory Lane at Talladega. But it was a race dominated by the Team Penske Fords. Logano’s No. 22 took a turn at the front for 70 laps; Brad Keselowski added another 21. Add in pseudo-teammate Paul Menard leading eight circuits and their Fords were up front for over half the race.
Sure, Keselowski and Menard crashed out. Top Daytona 500 contender Ryan Blaney ran a disappointing 18th. But Penske still won and flashed their speed on a plate track that reappears during NASCAR’s playoff this fall. Those Fords could be a trendy dark horse pick then and during those final ten races should Stewart-Haas Racing falter.
Who’s at the Back: Austin Dillon
This year’s Daytona 500 winner has fallen off the map. Dillon crashed out at Talladega and now has three finishes outside the top 25 in his last five races. Astoundingly, he’s led just one lap all year, the final lap of the 500 after controversial contact with Aric Almirola. Now 17th in the standings, he’s the lowest of any driver with a victory leaving him on the playoff bubble should NASCAR exceed 16 winners during the 26-race regular season.
NASCAR XFINITY Series driver Spencer Gallagher was a winner last weekend at Talladega. Now? He’s suspended indefinitely after failing a drug test and violating the sport’s substance abuse policy. Johnny Sauter will sub while Gallagher enters NASCAR’s Road To Recovery program. “I want to assure everyone in the NASCAR community this one-time error in judgment will never happen again,” Gallagher said this week. “I would like to say that I am sorry to all of the GMS organization for my actions, especially my team and team owner, who have worked so hard this year and have put faith in me. I also want to apologize to NASCAR, Chevrolet and my fans for letting them down. I have not upheld the behavior that is expected of me. I promise you all here and [now], I will do whatever it takes to make this right.”
Darrell Wallace Jr. picked up new primary sponsorship this week from World Wide Technology. The six-race deal begins at Kansas next weekend as the No. 43 continues to build up financial support for their rookie driver.
StarCom Racing will run two cars for the first time this weekend at Dover. Derrike Cope, winner of the Daytona 500 in 1990, will run the No. 99 while Landon Cassill is back behind the wheel of its full-time car, the No. 00. With a limited number of unchartered teams this season the team expects to bring out the No. 99 as much as they can while seeking to grow their small operation. Cassill earned the team’s best-ever finish, a 20th, at Bristol last month.
Congrats to the Earnhardts. Amy and Dale Earnhardt Jr. welcomed a baby girl, Isla Rose, into the world Monday night. The family is happy and healthy as Dale Jr. adjusts to fatherhood before returning to NASCAR as an analyst for NBC this summer.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Lead changes Sunday at Talladega, the lowest number for that restrictor plate race in 20 years.
Final rating for the NASCAR race at Talladega, typically one of the sport’s more popular events. It’s the least-watched NASCAR spring event at the track in at least 20 years.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Whether he’s top-tier or middle-tier in your league, see above re: Jimmie Johnson. Chances are even in a worst-case scenario the No. 48 team will wind up inside the top 10. Put him on your roster.
Pole-sitter Kyle Larson led 378 laps last year without reaching Victory Lane at Dover. You think he’s hungry to get there? Despite no wins, he has six top-10 finishes in eight Dover starts to produce an impressive average finish of 7.9.
Chase Elliott has yet to run outside the top five at Dover in four career starts. While Chevrolet teams have struggled to produce in 2018 it’s hard to ignore that track record. Elliott should have earned his first victory here last fall but poor choices surrounding lapped traffic helped veteran Kyle Busch catch and pass him for the victory.
Daniel Suarez was sixth and eighth at Dover during his rookie season. He also had a solid top-10 effort at Talladega as part of a season that’s starting to turn around. Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole remains a small step behind the Fords but don’t let that keep you from picking this sophomore.
Remember Ty Dillon’s brief flirtation with victory at Dover? He led 27 laps here on pit strategy before slipping back to 14th at the finish. A ho-hum 22nd followed in the fall but Dillon has some confidence here. I expect Sunday to produce one of the No. 13 team’s better runs in a disappointing season.
Rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. won two poles at Dover in the XFINITY Series and came within a few laps of victory here. The No. 43 team hasn’t exactly run up front at this track but Wallace’s talent could help make up the difference.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch has 3/1 odds to win this race, easily skating past Kevin Harvick at 9/2 odds and Kyle Larson at 11/2.
What I Think
I think Kyle Larson has been knocking on the door at this track too many times in recent years to keep getting shut out. At some point, you’re going to bust through and reach Victory Lane. But keep an eye on Jimmie Johnson. If the No. 48 team’s going to take a step forward, Sunday’s the time.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)