Sunday's win at Dover puts Jimmie Johnson 10 points out of first place in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings.
In the five seasons that NASCAR has used the “Chase for the Sprint Cup” format, no driver has ever won the September Dover race and gone on to win the championship. In the history of NASCAR, no driver has ever won four championships in a row. Perhaps history will change twice this season?
That’s the way Jimmie Johnson would like to see things after he drove to victory in the “AAA 400” NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday at the Monster Mile. It’s his fifth career win at the one-mile, concrete oval and completes the season sweep after also he won in May 2009. It’s the second time in Johnson’s career that he’s swept both races at Dover. He won twice at Dover in 2002.
“For me, this is one of the closest tracks to off-road racing that we have on the circuit,” said Johnson. “You’re virtually airborne off in each corner, so I think that helps me some and relates back to the vehicles I drove growing up. This track really favors a loose race car, and just by habit I enjoy a loose race car and that’s what I look for everyday at each track. So it just really plays into our style.”
Johnson’s No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet dominated the day, leading 271 of 400 laps including the final 214. But it wasn’t an easy by any means. He had the man he’s chasing right on his bumper throughout the race - who just also happens to be his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Points leader Mark Martin, No. 5 Kellogg’s/CARQUEST Chevrolet, finished second, which meant Johnson wasn’t able to overtake Martin, but he did trim Martin’s points lead from 35 points to just 10 with eight races remaining in the Chase.
The race itself will perhaps be remembered for one of the most spectacular crashes in recent memory at the Monster Mile. It happened on lap 32, when Joey Logano’s No. 20 Home Depot Toyota got caught up in traffic coming off Turn 4 and ended up flipping seven times. He came to rest along on the Turn 4 apron and there were several tense moments before the highly-touted rookie climbed out of his car to a large round of applause from the Dover crowd.
Logano was running in the middle of the pack and was going approaching Turn 3 when Bobby Labonte’s No. 96 DLP Ford slowed in front of him. When Logano checked up, Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Burger King Chevrolet bumped him in the rear and sent him spinning. Logano slid across the apron before coming back up the banking, where he was hit on the side by Reed Sorenson’s No. 43 Valvoline Dodge, sending him airborne. The car briefly came to rest on the driver’s side before falling back onto its wheels. Robby Gordon and Martin Truex Jr. also were involved in the four-car accident.
“I’m fine, it just really scared the heck out of me,” Logano said upon being released from the infield care center. “I was fine the whole time but I wasn’t sure what happened. They checked up into the corner and it seemed like I got tagged from behind. It just startled me, but I’m fine. It was the wildest ride I’ve ever been on. I’m just happy it landed on its wheels. When it was on its side, that’s what worried me.”
The wreck reduced the Logano’s Toyota to a tangled pile of sheet metal and caused a red flag period that lasted more than 23 minutes.
“It was the wildest ride I’ve ever been on,” Logano said. “It started rolling and I was in there like, ‘Damn, please make this thing stop.’ And it wouldn’t. It just kept going and going. I was fine. It goes to show how safe these cars are.”
The incident happened immediately after a competition caution on lap 25, instituted by NASCAR because of overnight rain. Johnson, who held the pole, led those first 25 laps before giving way to Ryan Newman, who started second, at that caution. Following the red flag, Newman’s No. 39 U.S. ARMY Chevrolet continued to lead until Kurt Busch overtook him on lap 58.
Busch, No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge, drove up front for the next 88 laps, but began jockeying with Johnson at lap 147. The two went back and forth for the next 30 miles, but Johnson was able to finally pull away at lap 176 and stayed up front for the remainder of the race.
With the victory, Johnson becomes just the fourth driver to win at least five races at Dover in his career. He joins David Pearson, who also won five races, and now sits two behind Richard Petty and Bobby Allison, the all-time leaders with seven each. Additionally, the win was the 44th of his career, tying him with Bill Elliott for 14th place on NASCAR’s all-time win’s list.
The race was a breath of fresh air for third-place finisher Matt Kenseth, No. 17 DeWalt Ford, who has had a nightmarish year. It was just his second top-five finish since February. He qualified 23rd, but had better practice sessions and an even better race day.
“It feels like 15 years [since his last top-five finish],” Kenseth said. “It’s good to get a little momentum. For the last four or five years this has been one of our best tracks on the circuit, so if we hadn’t done well here I would have been even more worried. We didn’t qualify very good but we were really happy with our car in practice. We got most of our track position through pit stops and restarts. We had a nice solid day on pit road, and were able to get a decent finish out of it.”
Juan Pablo Montoya, No. 42 Polaroid Chevrolet, started second, ran in the top five all day and finished fourth. Kurt Busch ended up fifth, followed by Jeff Gordon, A.J. Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman in the top-10.
The race took three hours, 22 minutes to complete and ran at an average speed of 118.704 mph. There were nine cautions for 38 laps, including the red flag from the Logano incident. Nineteen cars finished the race on the lead lap.
Among the Chase drivers, Denny Hamlin took the biggest hit by finishing 22nd. He dropped from third to sixth in the standings. Montoya, Newman and Stewart all moved up a spot to occupy third through fifth. Gordon’s finish bumped him from 10th to eighth, while Brian Vickers fell from eighth to 10th by virtue of his 18th-place finish. Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne remained in 11th and 12th, respectively.
The day leaves the top two drivers continuing to race in a situation that is a bit unique. Johnson is trying win his fourth consecutive championship; Martin is gunning for his first. But two things are clear despite that — they’re competitors on the track, and they’re teammates off it.
“It’s my first time to be part of Hendrick Motorsports [during the Chase],” said Martin. “If you’re asking if we’ll continue to share, I expect us to. We race hard on the racetrack, but off the racetrack we work towards the same goal together.”
In looking at Johnson’s performance, Martin sounded like someone who if he couldn’t win, wanted to make sure his teammate did.
“I don’t’ think we were in his league today,” Martin said. “We missed it just a little bit. But it would make me very proud if something I said helped him. I hoped I might get a win, but I definitely wanted to at least be useful. We’re going to race our guts out, no matter where we wind up. That dude still is Superman in my book. He looked like it today. And I see why. He works harder at it than anyone else.”
Johnson returned the praise, noting that he still has quite a bit of an obstacle to overcome in catching the veteran driver.
“Mark is an amazing driver with a great race team, and we’re just going to have to do what we can,” Johnson said. “You’re going to have to earn every point. I’m excited to see we’ve gapped some of the other Chase contenders. The bigger gap we can put between us and those guys, and only have to concentrate on another car or two, the easier my job is.”
“Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup” standings ?
After 2 of 10 events?
1. Mark Martin 5400?
2. Jimmie Johnson 5390?
3. Juan Pablo Montoya 5335?
4. Kurt Busch 5325?
5. Tony Stewart 5294?
6. Denny Hamlin 5292?
7. Ryan Newman 5290?
8. Jeff Gordon 5278?
9. Greg Biffle 5262?
10. Brian Vickers 5249?
11. Carl Edwards 5247?
12. Kasey Kahne 5211