By Brian Smith
A day of racing at Dover International Speedway that seemed to be chock full of unusual occurrences ended with one that was particularly familiar – Jimmie Johnson in Sunoco Victory Lane.
Johnson held off a handful of competitors for the final four laps after a late caution and took the win in the June 1 “FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks” NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, picking up his record ninth career victory at the Monster Mile.
He outlasted Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin, who combined to comprise the top five. In doing so, Johnson won consecutive races for the 13th time in his career, after taking last weekend’s race in Charlotte.
“We were decent [early on], but couldn’t really go anywhere – ran fifth or sixth for a while,” Johnson said. “From the second run on, the track came to us, or something happened there. And the car was just incredible the rest of the day. At the end we really honed in on the balance of the race car and what adjustments to put under it. That thing was awesome.”
Johnson ran up front for the most part, leading 272 of the 400 laps in all. But it wasn’t quite as easy of a day as those numbers make it sound. What helped is that on this occasion, his closest competitors didn’t seem to have a bit of luck.
Kyle Busch, for one, would have probably been one of Johnson’s biggest thorns. Busch was trying to become the first driver to ever pull off a three-race sweep at Dover, after winning the May 30 “Lucas Oil 200” NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race and the May 31 “Buckle Up 200 presented by Click It or Ticket” NASCAR Nationwide Series race. Early on, it looked like he might do just that – Busch drove away from Keselowski at the start of the race and went on to lead the first 81 laps.
Johnson ran him down at that point, and then proceeded to lead the next 45 laps. Busch was lurking behind, running in third and looking for his opportunity, when his day came to a sudden end after contact with Bowyer on lap 125. Bowyer, who under the impression that he was clear of Busch after a pass, came up the track and sent Busch into the outside wall.
Once Busch was done, Kenseth and Harvick joined Keselowski as drivers who appeared to have something for Johnson, with Jeff Gordon also showing promise. Harvick was the first to show a challenge, passing Johnson for the lead immediately upon a restart off a caution period at lap 140.
Harvick held the lead through an unusual incident at lap 158 when a piece of the track came loose and was hit by Jamie McMurray, who slid up into the wall after the impact. The race was stopped under a red flag for approximately 22 minutes while NASCAR and track personnel patched the spot, which didn’t cause any issues for the rest of the day.
“There’s nothing wrong with the racing surface,” said Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, after the race. “There’re no bones about what this facility does. It happens. You have that kind of fatigue on your pavement. I think those guys did a fantastic job of fixing the racing surface. It held up great. Everybody was waiting for it to come apart, but I think the track service crew did a great job repairing that damage.”
Harvick, however, had an issue almost immediately upon the resumption of the race, and one that was about equally bizarre. The inside valve stem of one of his tires was knocked off by a piece of debris that had actually made its way into the wheel and rattled around in there. He was forced to the pits and came back out two laps down. Another pit issue further complicated his day later in the race, and he finished 17th.
Once Harvick relinquished the lead, Kenseth ran up front for the next 13 laps. But Johnson ran him down on lap 178. Gordon was running second for a fairly long period of time, but late in the race his car got to the point where it was handling roughly. Gordon’s chagrin was audible over the radio as he told his team the woes of the car’s handling. He finished 15th.
The last question of Johnson’s dominance came after a debris caution with six laps remaining, which allowed the field to get back up behind the No. 48 for a restart. But Kenseth spun his tires off that restart, Bowyer bumped him, and Keselowski ran out of time.
“We just had an up and down day,” Keselowski said. “I started up front, but wasn’t where we needed to be early in the race. We made some good adjustments and we were able to drive from 13th to second at one point. I thought we were pretty equal to Jimmie, but we just ran out of laps there at the end.”
Said Kenseth: “I spun them a little bit. I just needed to do a better job. I was still spinning tires in fourth gear and then Clint hit me. I was glad to still finish after that.”
Other oddities throughout the day included a number of speeding penalties. Hamlin was nabbed for being too fast right out of his pit stall at his first stop, and dropped from third to 26th – but recovered for his fifth-place finish. Four drivers were cited during a cycle of green flag stops with about 80 laps remaining.
Rookie Kyle Larson was able to finish strong after an impressive weekend at Dover that was hiccupped by an engine change. He qualified fifth, but had to start at the rear of the field due to that. Despite the setback, he ran as high as fifth during the race and went on to finish 11th.
Another driver to have a promising weekend early on was Brian Vickers, who was one of the fastest drivers in practices and started ninth. Unfortunately for him, his engine was not up to the task and let go on lap 73.
Kenseth and Gordon swapped place in the points standings, with Kenseth hopping ahead by just two points. Carl Edwards moved up a spot to third and Johnson jumped two spots to fourth. Busch’s rough day dropped him four spots in the standings to seventh, while Hamlin leapt five spots to ninth. Larson moved from 13th to 10th, and Vickers’s engine woes dropped him from eighth to 13th.
The race ran an average speed of 117.724 mph and had eight caution periods for 41 laps. There were 18 lead changes among six drivers.