Jimmie Johnson took victory in Dover to become the most successful driver at the Monster Mile in NASCAR history, overtaking Richard Petty and Bobby Allison with a total of eight wins.
The five-time champion had to work for his record, though, as team-mate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had looked strong all day, and a good call to take four tyres by crew chief Steve Letarte meant the odds seemed to be stacked in favour of the #88 as Johnson faced the final 26 laps with just two fresh tyres.
Any advantage was soon diminished, however, as Johnson pulled away on the restart, leaving Earnhardt with too much to do and not enough time to do it in.
“I ran my guts out to stay ahead of him.” said a relieved Johnson. “Any switch I could flip in the car that might help the car turn. My brake bias, anything I could twist, turn, pull, push, I did, then just drove the s*** out of that thing. I was able to keep him at bay for 10, 12 laps, at that point I was able to stretch a little bit and get back to running a smart race.
“To get this eighth win here is very, very special. Truthfully it was the first thought that went through my mind when I crossed the finish line. It wasn’t long after I thought of the impact of winning in the Chase, wondering where the 20 [Chase leader, Matt Kenseth] was.”
The win allowed Johnson to close the gap to Kenseth, who finished in seventh, to just eight points, with Kyle Busch a further four points back in third.
For much of the race, Earnhardt Jr had looked like a hot tip for the win, having started from the pole and leading for much of the early stages. However, luck appeared to stay away from Junior, particularly when it came to green flag pit stops. During the first round, he misjudged the entrance to pit road, having to go round for a second attempt at entry. Later in the race, in another round of green flag stops, the #88 got caught behind the #14 of Mark Martin, losing even more time and coming out in fourth place.
A late race caution saw much of the field come down pit road for fresh tyres and a top up of fuel, with the leaders opting to take just two tyres in order to hold track position. Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, noticed a sizeable gap between the #88 and the next car on pit road, so opted to take four tyres. A gamble which saw Junior retain his position and be the first car on the restart with four fresh tyres.
The advantage saw Earnhardt storm past the first two challengers, but could not catch up to Johnson, who had pulled away for a record-breaking victory.
“It was real disappointing, but Jimmie’s just that fast,” said Earnhardt, Jr. “He’s that good around this place. I was going to do whatever I could to win, if I could get him within reach. We’ve had a couple of good weekends, with two of the best cars I’ve had all year. Running second is no better than running tenth to me.”
Joey Logano came through to take third behind Johnson and Earnhardt, breaking up a potential Hendrick Motorsports 1-2-3, with Jeff Gordon running in fourth place behind the #22. Kyle Busch rounded out the top five.
“All these teams are great,” concluded Johnson, talking of the final seven Chase races and his main rivals for the title. “When you put the 18 and the 20 up there, it’s going to make it a very difficult deal. We came to a good track and we got what we needed to get done. I know the 20 is going to be awful strong the rest of the stretch. I look forward to racing him.”