Pole position, fastest race lap, most laps led, first past the checkered flag. Jimmie Johnson in the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet silenced the doubters in the only way he knows how in the AAA400 at Dover International Speedway after his poor finish at Loudon last week.
A maximum score of 195 points lifts Johnson four places in the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship table to second, just 35 behind Denny Hamlin who finished a creditable 9th at a track which has never suited him. Johnson didn’t have it all his own way as he was passed on the second lap by A J Allmendinger in the Insignia HDTV Ford having one of his finest races as he led for a total of 143 laps. Easily the most laps A J has led in a race he was heard over the radio telling his crew chief just how much fun leading was and that they should do it more often. As he started to slide back down the pack he told his crew the car was handling badly and needed to come in but was told he should hang in there for another 25 laps. He stuck his ground and came straight in for four tyres and his instincts proved right as debris was found in his right rear giving him a slow puncture. The #43 Richard Petty Motorsports car rallied and fought its way back to tenth spot at the finish. Had he not followed his beliefs it could have been so much worse.
Kyle Busch led for 46 laps in the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota but from about lap 338 onwards the handling went away from him as the car tightened up and he held on for sixth place earning enough points to maintain third place in The Chase. He genuinely felt that he had a race winning car until they tried to dial out some looseness and just went too far with it.
Other noteworthy drives came from Jeff Burton in the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet who finished second climbing 25 places from his lowly starting position, a welcome boost for the beleaguered Richard Childress Racing team whose appeal against the penalties imposed this week will be heard on Wednesday. Mark Martin, who was demoted from third in the starting line-up to 42nd because a rear shock was over-pressurised, meritoriously brought the #5 GoDaddy Chevrolet home in twelfth place, a climb of thirty places. Kevin Harvick rose eighteen places from 33rd to fifteenth but for a driver in The Chase his lowly qualifying positions are doing little for his chances to lift the Sprint Cup and his profanity laden post race interviews showed only too well that he was less than happy with his performance.
Other Chase drivers who shot themselves in the foot were Matt Kenseth who braked so hard when making an unsuccessful attempt to enter the pit lane that he blew his left front tyre as he was forced to continue the lap and never recovered from the time lost, eventually finishing in 18th place. Tony Stewart was another who found it hard to manage the tricky pit lane entrance and earned a drive-through penalty for speeding as he came in, as did Kurt Busch who, bizarrely, had driven the length of the pit lane at the correct speed and then tried to accelerate into his box to gain a fraction of time. He did rally back in the #2 Penske owned Miller Lite Dodge to claim fourth place behind Joey Logano. Clint Bowyer‘s miserable week didn’t get any better when he hit the wall on the outside of turn three and although the damage wasn’t severe he never really recovered and finished in 25th place and left himself mired at the bottom of the table, a full 235 points behind Hamlin and thus virtually writing off any chance in this year’s championship unless his appeal is successful.
The championship table has more or less split into two with the top eight of them being covered by just 83 points. Behind Hamlin and Johnson are the Busch brothers, Kyle then Kurt, Kevin Harvick down three spots, Carl Edwards, then the two Jeff’s, Burton and Gordon, the latter being the biggest loser having dropped four places after falling back in the race when a fluffed pit stop cost him valuable time. In the second group and nearly sixty points behind Gordon is Greg Biffle, then Stewart and Kenseth both within 25 points of him and finally Bowyer a further seventy points back.
It is hard to see any of the last four fighting for the championship from so far behind with just eight races to run but the leading eight show that it is still anyone’s title with up to 195 points available for a win. Equally, just one bad race could knock one of them out of contention. The fight continues in Clint Bowyer’s home state of Kansas next Sunday.