Jimmie Johnson claimed Sunday’s “AAA 400” at the Monster Mile, starting from the pole position to win for the sixth time at the one-mile concrete oval. Johnson won the race by 2.637 seconds over Jeff Burton, who advanced from a 27th place starting position to finish runner-up.
Jimmie Johnson went into the “Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup” hoping to use the first two races as a springboard towards a fifth consecutive title. The first one at New Hampshire didn’t go so well, but the second at one of his favorite tracks — Dover International Speedway — sure did.
Johnson claimed Sunday’s “AAA 400” at the Monster Mile, starting from the pole position to win for the sixth time at the one-mile concrete oval. Johnson won the race by 2.637 seconds over Jeff Burton, who advanced from a 27th place starting position to finish runner-up. Johnson is now second to only Richard Petty and Bobby Allison, who each won seven times in their careers at Dover.
The win counteracted Johnson’s 25th place finish at New Hampshire last week, which left Johnson 92 points back in the Chase, and vaulted him back to second place, now just 35 points behind leader Denny Hamlin.
“Obviously it was the weekend we would dream of. We got the pole, led the most laps and won the race,” Johnson said. “I had a great car and everybody did their jobs today. I was very pleased with the effort and it came at a good time obviously. We’ve got eight [races] to go and we’ll see where it goes from here.”
Johnson ran near the front all day. He eventually ended up leading five times for 191 laps, and never ran lower than sixth place. His first stint up front consisted of the first 13 laps, but he yielded the lead to A.J. Allmendinger on lap 14.
Johnson was content to hang around the front pack until lap 42, when Allmendinger pitted and turned over the lead. He kept a grip on the top spot for the next 96 laps, until Kyle Busch just beat him out while pitting under caution at lap 293. On the restart, Johnson spun his tires and Busch was able to pull away to a 1.3-second lead in just four laps.
But on lap 339, Johnson reeled Busch in and regained the top spot. Aside from handing the lead to Carl Edwards on the next set of pit stops, he was in front the rest of the way.
For as well as the race went, the weekend started out uncharacteristically badly for Johnson. He ran just 20th fastest in the first practice on Friday, which, compared to the No. 48 team’s history at Dover, was like running last.
“We really had our hands full this weekend,” said crew chief Chad Knaus. “We came in qualifying trim, and as we unloaded, the car wasn’t reacting the way we anticipated. So we had to make some pretty significant changes, and when it came time to qualify, we had to put a setup under there that Jimmie hadn’t felt yet.
“For race practice, we weren’t where we needed to be then either. Honestly, we could adjust the car and make it do some different things, but we couldn’t really make the car better. The difference today was definitely the driver.”
The driver came out of the race knocking on Hamlin’s door in the points standings, although Hamlin’s 35-point advantage is the largest a driver has ever had after two races since the Chase was implemented in 2004. Hamlin finished ninth, which was no small accomplishment considering his history at Dover. He finished fourth in the May race this year, but before that had finished no higher than 22nd in the five previous races.
“It was a mediocre day,” Hamlin said. “I hate that we didn’t run better, but we got close to where we wanted to be leaving Dover. It’s frustrating that we still can’t get a grasp on this race track and didn’t run as well as we did in the spring. But if you told me I’d be taking a 35-point lead out of Dover, I’d take it.”
Kyle Busch finished third and also jumped up to third place in the points standings with his solid run.
“It was a good day for us, but man, legitimately we had a second-place car,” Busch said. “I thought we had something on Jimmie with about 100 laps left. I was gaining on him, but I was overdriving the car. After that, the car just got tight and I could never get it back out of the car. It was that good, but we didn’t finish quite where we wanted to.”
Burton jumped to seventh place in the Chase standings with his second-place finish. He’s just 80 points out of the lead heading into Chase race No. 3 at Kansas after finishing second at Dover for the second time this season.
“We thought we had a really good car coming into the race today,” Burton said. “We took off and struggled a little bit with rear grip, and worked all day to get the grip level right. About halfway through that next to last run, my car got really happy and took off. I’m proud of us for getting the car right at the right time. About 15 laps into that next to last run, Jimmie cleared Logano and got really fast. He was just a little quicker than we were today.”
Allmendinger started second and finished 10th, a result that was largely due to a right-rear tire going down. He led 143 laps on the day after previously leading only 43 laps in his entire NASCAR Sprint Cup career.
“It was just a fast race car and starting up front [that was the difference],” he said. “It’s actually a lot of fun to lead. No wonder Jimmie is smiling so much.”
The race was one of the cleanest ever run at the Monster Mile. It had just four cautions, two of which were for debris and one that was for a damaged track caution light. There was only one incident that brought out a caution, when David Reutimann hit the wall in Turn 4. The 19 laps under caution were the fewest at Dover in 13 years, going back to the September 1997 event that had just one caution flag for 11 laps. It was just the sixth race in the track’s history to run fewer than 20 laps under caution.