After a long week in the marathon that was the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series headed up north to America’s first state, Delaware. This weekend, it was time to take to the track on the concrete of Dover for the Autism Speaks 400.
Heading into the weekend, the biggest story was Tony Eury Jr, crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr, being removed from his position. Coming off a race in which the No. 88 car ran in the back of the pack for a majority of the afternoon, eventually finishing in 40th-place, Rick Hendrick decided that it was time for a change.
Stepping in was Lance McGrew, Hendrick Motorsports’ lead R&D developer along with Brian Whitesell and Rex Stump, both chassis experts for the Hendrick organization, to work with Earnhardt Jr. to get better performance and results.
When Sunday came, it wasn’t about just Earnhardt Jr. anymore. Instead, there were 42 other drivers on the track ready to do battle on Dover’s “Monster Mile” concrete oval.
When the green flag flew on the sunny afternoon, it was last week’s winner, David Reutimann, and Juan Pablo Montoya leading the field to the green flag. In the first few laps, both drivers battled for position, with Reutimann gaining the upper hand. As he led the field, the driver on the move early on was Reed Sorenson, driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, as he quickly passed Montoya for second and began running down Reutimann, finally passing him for the lead on lap 29.
Shortly after, the yellow flag was posted as it was a competition caution by NASCAR for teams to check tire wear. Most of the drivers elected to come to pit road, and some drivers decided to gamble early with only two tires. Coming off pit road, it was another Richard Petty Motorsports driver, Elliott Sadler who took the lead.
Right on the restart on lap 35, Sadler had no chance to fend off the drivers behind him who decided to get four new tires. One lap later, Greg Biffle made the pass to get his first lead of the afternoon in his 3M Ford. Biffle held the lead until the second caution flag came out on lap 44 when Tony Raines blew a tire, spraying debris from the car across the race track.
The cars near the front decided to stay out for positioning, leaving Biffle out front followed by Jimmie Johnson and Reutimann. On the lap 49 restart, Biffle led the field to the green, but only one lap later Johnson made the pass to overtake the position.
Over the next 65 laps, it was Johnson leading and pulling away from the field, trying to show how dominant the No. 48 car could be on the race track. As the field began making scheduled pit stops, it was starting to become clear that the guy to beat was Johnson as his crew pulled off a fast pit stop, despite having to give up the lead to Biffle.
Then came a slight problem for the field. On lap 117, John Andretti hit the wall, causing debris to come off and bring out the caution. This trapped a lot of cars one lap down. As the final pit stops were completed, Johnson retook the lead. The problem came since the cars on the tail end of the lead lap would take the restart ahead of Johnson, putting the leader way back in the pack.
Shortly after the green flag was posted, Johnson was challenged by Carl Edwards, who finally took the lead on lap 127. Three laps later, Johnson retook the lead as the two battled in lapped traffic.
Johnson again began to stretch out his lead even in lapped traffic, but his progress was slowed on lap 164 as the fourth caution of the race came out after Montoya, who led early, blew a tire and much like Andretti on the previous caution, spread debris across the track. Pit stops did not shake up the field much as Johnson led coming into the pits, and led coming out of the pits.
The field restarted on lap 170, and Johnson took off immediately. In a matter of 30 laps, Johnson’s lead over second-place running Denny Hamlin had built to over six seconds. Hamlin started reeling Johnson in as they both began to negotiate lapped traffic, cutting the gap to a little over 3.5 seconds.
Unfortunately for Hamlin, his attempt to take the lead ended abruptly as he too cut a tire and slammed the outside wall, suffering major damage and bringing out the caution flag. Pit stops again did not shake up the field much as Johnson held his lead. His teammates, Mark Martin and Earnhardt Jr, came out right behind him, giving Hendrick Motorsports the 1-2-3 positioning on the field.
Mark Martin would lead one lap as he passed Johnson in turn four, but immediately in the first corner on the next lap, he drifted back high and gave Johnson the position back.
Johnson would stretch his lead out once again on the field to over 3.2 seconds, but debris on the track again slowed the field for the sixth time on lap 276. Johnson led the field into the pits, but this time it was Matt Kenseth who took the lead coming off pit road, putting Johnson in second place, the first time he lost the lead on pit lane all afternoon.
The field took the green flag on lap 281, and Johnson again was hungry for the lead and took it once again three laps later. Unlike before, he could not enjoy his lead for long as the seventh caution flag came out one lap later as Robby Gordon and Paul Menard crashed coming off turn two.
No lead cars came in for service and the field was brought back to green on lap 291 with Johnson leading followed by Kenseth and Martin. Johnson would prove again that he had the car to beat as he pulled away from the leaders until the eighth caution flag of the afternoon was posted on lap 330, again because of debris.
All the lead lap cars took four tires and fuel, which with this stop would allow the teams to go the rest of the distance without having a need to get more fuel. Johnson would again lead the field as he took the green flag and soon pulled out to over a 1.5 second lead.
The ninth caution came out on lap 363 as more debris was found on the race track, and the field came down once more for tires. This would jumble the entire front of the field as Johnson had major pit trouble, bringing him from the lead to ninth place and putting Biffle to the front followed by the Stewart-Haas drivers, Stewart and Newman, in second and third.
Just as quickly as the field was restarted on lap 369, it was slowed one lap later as the final caution flag flew as David Stremme hit the inside wall on the front stretch after contact with Martin. Reutimann had to spin out to avoid hitting Stremme’s spinning car.
The front three would remain the same as the field came down for the final restart of the afternoon on lap 373. However, Johnson was on the move, and fast. On the restart, he was eighth, but in five laps had moved up to fourth, and then got third two laps later.
In the meantime, Biffle and Stewart began battling for the lead position. With ten laps left, the battle was on as Stewart took the lead away from Biffle. Two laps later, Johnson moved into second as he made his way past Biffle. Now it became a battle as Stewart and Johnson went back and forth to get position.
One driver would go high, one low, and each one held their ground to keep up to go for victory. Finally, with two laps left, Johnson got the best of Stewart as he made the pass on the outside and didn’t look back. On this afternoon, the best car did win the race as it was Johnson taking his Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet to victory at Dover.
Next weekend, NASCAR is heading to Pennsylvania as it is time for the Pocono 500 up in the Pocono Mountains. This triangle track has proved tricky for many drivers, but heading into this weekend the three drivers I have my eye on are Johnson, Hamlin and Edwards. Johnson will have momentum on his side following this win, but Hamlin will definitely be a contender.
Hamlin won both races at the track during his rookie campaign in 2006, which is remarkable considering he had never even seen the track until that year. However, my pick for this race is Carl Edwards. Jack Roush has always done well at Pocono, and it was Edwards who won both races in 2007, so look out for the Aflac Ford.
My guy to watch out for at this race is Mark Martin. This is an odd pick to some because of how Martin has performed this season for Rick Hendrick, but the one fact that is hard to miss is that Martin has never won at Pocono. This may be his best opportunity with the Hendrick power under the hood and the renewed confidence that he didn’t have his last two seasons just doing part-time racing.
Coverage for the Pocono 500 is set to begin at 12:30 next Sunday, and it will be the first of six races that will be broadcasted by TNT.
TOP 10: 1-Johnson 2-Stewart 3-Biffle 4-Kenseth 5-Kurt Busch 6-Kahne 7-Edwards 8-Newman 9-Mears 10-Martin
NOTABLE FINISHES: 12-Earnhardt Jr. 15-Logano (R) 16-Burton 17-Harvick 23-Kyle Busch 26-Gordon 36-Hamlin
CAUTIONS: Ten for 52 laps. Lap 31-34, 44-48, 117-123, 164-169, 231-236, 276-280, 286-290, 330-334, 363-368, 370-372
LEADERS: 25 lead changes among 10 drivers. Reutimann 1-2, Montoya 3-5, Reutimann 6-28, Sorenson 29-32, Gilliland 33, Sadler 34-35, Biffle 36-49, Johnson 50-115, Edwards 116-120, Johnson 121-126, Edwards 127-129, Johnson 130-165, Edwards 166, Johnson 167-232, Edwards 233, Johnson 234-239, Martin 240, Johnson 241-277, Edwards 278, Kenseth 279-284, Johnson 285-331, Biffle 332, Johnson 333-364, Biffle 365-390, Stewart 391-397, Johnson 398-400
POINT STANDINGS: 1-Stewart, 1853 points 2-Gordon, -46 3-Johnson, -64 4-Kurt Busch, -91 5-Newman, -173 6-Kyle Busch, -219 7-Hamlin, -223 8-Kenseth, -228 9-Biffle, -235 10-Burton, -266 11-Edwards, -271 12-Martin, -286