By Brian Smith
In five years or so, when fans who were at Dover International Speedway for the September 2013 race weekend take a look back at their experience, they’ll remember being there for all kinds of history.
Events on Friday set the table, when 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers qualified faster than the old track record, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. setting the new track record. On Saturday, Joey Logano won his record-setting fourth Dover NASCAR Nationwide Series race in a row while breaking the track record for the fastest Nationwide race ever at Dover.
Then on Sunday, Jimmie Johnson did things one better, winning his record-setting eighth career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at the Monster Mile when he took the checkered flag for the “AAA 400.” He just missed out on the accomplishment back in June, but this time he held off teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for the final 25 laps after a caution period ended, claiming for himself the track record he shared with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison.
“It’s incredible,” Johnson said afterwards. “To do anything that Bobby or Richard has done is quite an accomplishment. I’m not sure I’ve ever done anything that Richard Petty hasn’t. To be truthful, it was the first thought that went through my mind after I crossed the start-finish line. We came so close to getting that done in the spring, so it was nice to get it done today.”
The race was not typical Dover – there were no wrecks, no spins, no blown right-front tires. There were just four cautions, all for debris, scattered over the course of the 400 miles. The result was an average race speed for Johnson of 130.909 mph, which made for the third-fastest NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race ever at Dover.
The fourth caution did play a role in the results of the race, mainly because of how the fuel windows played out. Teams pitted under green in the neighborhood of Lap 315, which was just outside the distance that most of the top teams could make on fuel – meaning they were going to need splash-and-go stops to make it to the end of the race. However, some drivers – Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer, to name a couple – were trying to conserve fuel in the hopes they wouldn’t have to make that final stop. That would have put them in prime position to win had the race stayed green.
That didn’t happen this time. The yellow flag flew again on Lap 370 for debris in Turn 3. That put the fuel concerns to bed, but still provided for some strategy. Most drivers took just two tires, including Johnson, but some took four, including Earnhardt and Logano. Earnhardt was able to do so and still come off pit road running fourth.
But unfortunately for Earnhardt, there just wasn’t enough time left for the advantage to really take effect. The green flag flew with 25 laps left, which made for a short enough run that Johnson was able to hold on. Logano did take advantage, jumping several spots to finish third.
“I knew for sure over the entire run if we could run 80 laps, four tires would definitely be better than two,” Earnhardt said. “We were guessing at 35 to 40 laps the difference would start [to happen]. Our car was starting to come around and I think the difference between our two cars was about to show. But the race is 400 laps, and that’s the way it is.”
Earnhardt also lamented a mistake he made earlier in the race when he tried to make his first pit stop. He was leading at Lap 118 when he couldn’t slow his car in time for the commitment line, and ended up missing pit road and having to circle back around. Once his eventual stop was complete, he’d lost considerable ground to Johnson and was running eighth.
“I think if you really look at the race as a whole, that did cost us a little bit,” Earnhardt said. “We had the lead and gave up the lead, and Jimmie had the lead the rest of the race and was able to take advantage of that clean air when it counted. If I hadn’t given up that track position and had a smart enough race to keep the lead when it counted, we might have won the race.”
But Earnhardt gave credit, saying his teammate simply had a fast race car, and Johnson agreed.
“I think we were a little vulnerable on sticker and new tires to get going for five to eight laps,” Johnson said. “But it was just a very fast race car. I was fearing cautions at the end, and of course we had one. I felt like two tires was good for us. We knew that it was going to work well for us. I wish that [cars with] four was going to start further back. When I saw four was on the car right behind me I knew I was going to be in trouble. Jr. drove a whale of a race. He kept me super honest there at the end.”
For the first time since the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format was implemented, the entire top 10 was comprised of drivers in the Chase. Gordon finished fourth, giving Hendrick Motorsports three of the top four spots. Kyle Busch finished fifth, followed by Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer.
Kasey Kahne finished just outside the top 10, coming in 13th. He managed to nurse the car to that spot after having some sort of unknown issue.
“We don’t know yet,” Kahne said. “Something was wrong and we lost a lot of power. It didn’t seem like the engine, so maybe it was something else like the tail pipes or something. We just salvaged a good finish and we didn’t pit there and got a top-15. So that was good for what we had and what we were dealt with.”
Kurt Busch finished 21st after fighting an ill-handling car throughout the day, including an unscheduled stop for a loose right rear wheel. Carl Edwards had to go to the garage late in the race with a broken wheel hub; he did return, but was 15 laps down and finished 35th.
“We struggled all day,” Edwards said. Our plan was to get off-sequence at the end and I thought we might have had a shot at making a top-3 or top-4 out of it, but something broke in the left rear. So that’s tough.”
With the win, Johnson leapfrogged Kyle Busch into second place in the Chase and made up 10 points on Kenseth. Johnson sits eight points back, while Kyle Busch, who also made up two points, now is third at 12 points back.
“I still think it’s too early to say somebody can make a move,” Johnson said. “You just don’t want to give points up. Today we got max points so we didn’t leave any on the table. We’ll go to Kansas next week and see what we can do.”
Harvick jumped from sixth to fourth, and Gordon leapt from eighth to fifth – the two are actually tied in points, 39 back of Kenseth. Biffle is seventh, dropping one spot, and is followed by Newman, who also jumped two places.
Bowyer moved up to ninth, while Kurt Busch dropped from seventh to 10th. Earnhardt made up 12 points on Kenseth, but didn’t move up in the standings. Edwards took a huge hit with his hub mishap, falling from fourth to 11th and losing ground to the tune of 29 points – he’s now 65 points behind Kenseth after coming into the race just 36 points out. Logano and Kahne round out the Chase field.
Johnson led 243 of the 400 laps, and his win prevented Kenseth from picking up what would have been an unprecedented third straight victory to start the Chase. It also could be a good omen – in four of the last five years, the winner at Dover has gone on to win the Chase. Two of those were Johnson himself, in 2009 and 2010, and in the one that wasn’t – 2011 – Johnson ended up winning the Chase anyway after finishing second at Dover. And unrelated to tendencies, Johnson picked up an incredible 25th win in 93 Chase races since the format’s inception in 2004.
Thirty-seven of the 43 cars were running at the end, with 12 finishing on the lead lap. There were 19 lead changes among eight drivers, with Gordon, Busch, Kenseth, Newman and Bowyer all picking up bonus points for leading a lap, along with David Gilliland.