Jimmie Johnson continued Hendrick Motorsports' hot-streak by taking his seventh win at the ‘Monster Mile’ of Dover. The Californian was good value for the victory, his third in four races after the Southern 500 at Darlington and the All-Star race at Charlotte, interrupted by team-mate Kasey Kahne's win in the Coke 600, as the five-time dominated proceedings, leading 289 of the 400 laps to finish ahead of Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth.
Publicising the new Madagascar film with a rainbow wig, Johnson was elated with his latest win, which put him level with Hall of Fame members Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for the most victories at theDelaware circuit.
“It was a team effort. Obviously, I had an amazing Lowe's Madagascar Chevrolet to drive today,” Johnson said. “I think the way we protected the win was pit road. Last week was hard on us, but this week these guys stepped up and did it every time I was on pit road.
“It's just a huge honour. I'm never one that paid attention to stats. I truthfully never thought I would be a guy that would build up any cool stats and here I am with some pretty cool stats! I'm very proud of the seven wins here and to be in that very elite company.”
Hendrick Motorsports looked strong all weekend, with Jeff Gordon the only man who could hold a candle to the dominant #48. But as has been so often the case this year, Gordon's race quickly turned sour when a wheel was left loose and he had to make an unscheduled extra stop to tighten it. Things went from bad to worse for the #24 after he made his final stop on lap 325 under green, as the caution flag flew for debris just a few laps later, allowing everyone to pit under caution. Although he was the first car one lap down and therefore received the 'lucky dog' to get him back onto the lead lap, he could only climb his way back to 13th by the finish.
“I can’t wait to see that debris on TV,” a frustrated Gordon said. “I’d like to see it, because I certainly never saw it.
With only three top-10 finishes all year, Gordon finds himself marooned down in 22nd place in the points at the half-way point in the regular season. With only the top ten drivers qualifying automatically for the Chase, Gordon is conscious that he needs to get some wins on the board to be eligible for one of the two wildcard spots.
“It’s always more frustrating when you’ve got a car that can win, and you show it by going up there and taking the lead,” Gordon continued. “We don’t care about finishing top-15 or top-10 right now. That does nothing for us. We need wins.”
Harvick was relieved to recover a second place finish, after a pit-lane miscue had dropped him from third to 18th, while Kenseth was equally thrilled to score strongly despite the car not being to his liking. The Roush-Fenway Ford driver has closed to within a point of his team-mate and championship leader Greg Biffle, who ran an anonymous 11th.
“It was tough. I just couldn't get the balance right,” Biffle said.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. kept up the pressure on the leading pair with a fourth place for Hendrick, to continue his streak of finishing on the lead lap in every race so far this year. His 2012 campaign so far has epitomised consistency, and although NASCAR's most popular driver is still to win a race, he has now finished inside the top 5 on five occasions, already surpassing his tally of four from the whole of last year.
Fifth was a season's best finish for Clint Bowyer, whose pit-crew were lucky to escape unscathed when Ryan Newman swept through their box, while Aric Almirola finished an impressive sixth in his first appearance at Dover in a Cup car. Almirola has quietly impressed this year driving the legendary #43 for Richard Petty Motorsports, and after qualifying on pole for last week's Coke 600, is full of confidence heading into the summer months.
“I would say that is pretty respectable for our first time here,” a delighted Almirola said. “I can't say enough about all the guys on this team. The beginning of the year was not what we wanted, but they all kept believing in me and being behind me and supporting me and working their guts out.
“It's days like last week when we qualified on the pole and this week coming here and finishing sixth, it is runs like that that make you realize how hard these guys work.”
Michael Waltrip Racing were also represented in the top 10, with Martin Truex Jr. scoring a solid seventh. The team had high hopes for the race after veteran Mark Martin in the MWR #55 scored his second pole of the season, but it wasn't to be as the 53 year old slipped to 14th at the finish.
Rounding out the top 10 were Joey Logano in eighth, ahead of Kasey Kahne and Almirola's team-mate Marcos Ambrose. Logano's season-best finish in Cup is an indication that his stunning form in the Nationwide Series is finally starting to translate over to Cup, his four wins in the second tier series having given him a vital confidence boost.
“Overall, yeah it was a good weekend overall,” Logano said. “Winning a race and finishing eighth here, we'll take it. It's a solid finish and a good points day. We just have to keep doing that all season long.”
The race was marred by a multi-car pileup on lap nine. Starting down in 29th after a miserable qualifying, Tony Stewart was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time as Landon Cassill turned across his nose, the slight contact enough to spin the BK Racing #83 into the outside wall. Running close behind them, there was no room for Regan Smith, who ploughed into Stewart, creating a pile-up behind, with Casey Mears, Dave Blaney, Travis Kvapil, Michael McDowell, Steven Leicht, Joe Nemechek, Reed Sorenson and Scott Speed all collected in the mayhem.
“The 83 was trying to get back down to the bottom, and we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Stewart said. “It wasn’t Regan’s fault. He was right behind me and didn’t have anywhere to go either. So it’s just not a real good deal at the beginning of the race like this.”
“It’s just a crappy weekend, and when you get back there with some of those guys, you’ve got to be more patient. As far back as we started, I didn’t really have the luxury to be as patient as I would have liked to have been.”
While David Ragan somehow managed to navigate his way through the mess, his Front Row Motorsport team-mate David Gilliland was not so lucky and rammed Juan Pablo Montoya, compounding the Colombian's dreadful season.
“I thought I slowed down enough and I got run from behind,” said Montoya, who has only finished inside the top-10 once this season. “It’s part of racing. If you knew everything was going to go smooth then you wouldn’t even bother coming. It’s been a hard year for us and we’ll just keep working at it.”
Cassill and Gilliland would go no further, but Stewart, Montoya, and Smith would eventually get their battered machines back out on track. Stewart's rolling wreck completed enough laps to be classified 25th, passing the stricken Kyle Busch who was eventually classified 29th after an engine failure while running in the top 5.
Busch was not the only one to suffer engine issues however, with Harvick's team-mate Jeff Burton and Kurt Busch also succumbing to problems in the #51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet. The elder Busch was in the news for all the wrong reasons once again after Saturday's Nationwide race, when he launched into a tirade against a pit-reporter. When asked whether the probation he sustained afterDarlington was affecting his racing, Busch replied:
“It refrains me from beating the s*** out of you right now because you ask me stupid questions. But since I'm on probation, I suppose that's improper to say as well.”
He is being currently investigated by NASCAR for his comments.