One week after his 25th-place finish at New Hampshire, Jimmie Johnson showed the rest of the Sprint Cup Series that he is still in the hunt to claim his fifth consecutive title. Johnson started the Chase last week in second place, 10 points behind Denny Hamlin but found himself coming into Dover this past weekend 92 points out of the lead in sixth place.
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus did what champions do and that is quickly put a bad race behind them and move on to the next stop on the schedule with an eye on putting together a dominating performance. By their own admission, they unloaded with plenty of work to do on their Lowe’s Chevrolet, but by time qualifying came around on Friday, they had found enough speed and handling to put the car on the pole.
Winning the pole was just a glimpse of what to come as Johnson was the dominating car on Sunday as he not only drove his way to victory lane, he also led 191 laps, which was the most of any driver in the field. The bonus points for leading at least one lap and the most laps when added to the points for winning gave him the maximum number of points (195) a driver can earn in one race.
Going into the weekend, you had to get the feeling that this could be the track where Johnson would reclaim his momentum for his drive for number five as Dover has always been one of his best racetracks. His win Sunday was his sixth at the Monster Mile in 18 starts and his third in his last four starts at the track. He had also led the most laps at the track in the last three races leading up to Sunday’s AAA 400.
Johnson’s ability to win races has always made him a serious threat to win the title as the Chase portion of the schedule begins. The win Sunday was the 53rd of his career in 319 starts with 19 of those trips to victory lane coming during 62 Chase races (30.6 percent).
Johnson will now go to Kansas this weekend in second place trailing Hamlin by 35 points. That is the same lead that Hamlin had last week after New Hampshire, but Clint Bowyer was the driver in second place after posting the win in the first Chase race.
Of course, everyone knows the week that Bowyer and his team had last week after NASCAR offi cials took his winning car back to Charlotte to its R&D center. His car failed that inspection after it was found to be sixty-thousandths of an inch too low on one side. That resulted in him being docked 150 points.
Hamlin had said all week long that Dover was not one of his best tracks and just getting a decent finish would be a good day for his team. His ninth-place finish was good enough for him to keep his lead in the standings, but it has to be worth noting that no driver who has been on top of the points after the second race of the Chase has gone on to win the title.
Jeff Burton and Kurt Bush both were able to gain some ground on Hamlin in the points at Dover. Burton’s second-place finish moved him from ninth to seventh in the standings, as he was able to cut down the point diff erential from 112 down to 80. Busch got caught speeding on pit road early in the race but overcame that on his way to a fourth-place finish that moved him up one spot to fourth in the standings. He entered the race 86 points behind Hamlin but now trails by 49.
Eight races remain before the champion is crowned, but with each race that goes off the board the opportunity for a driver to take a big chunk out of another driver’s lead dwindles. Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer all are over 140 points out of the lead and in order for any of these drivers to make a serious run at the crown the drivers ahead of them are going to have to experience some bad races. Even if one of these drivers won next week at Kansas and point leader Hamlin finished last, the drivers in between these two drivers would also have to experience some bad luck for the winner to see any kind of real gain in the points. It’s a deep hole that these four drivers are now in, and one that they may never get out.
Price Chopper 400 Track:
Kansas Speedway (1.5-mile tri-oval, 15 degrees of banking in the turns) Date:
Oct. 3, 1 p.m. TV:
MRN Defending champ: