The one thing that is unique about NASCAR once the Chase for the Championship begins is how diverse the tracks are that the Sprint Cup Series will race on. To start out the final ten races, it was New Hampshire. The track is flat, wide and multiple grooved, giving the teams varying ways to make their way around the the track.
This week, it was on to the “Monster Mile” in Dover, Delaware, for the AAA 400. Like New Hampshire, the track has multiple lanes to race on, making for competitive action. However, unlike last week, this track is high-banked and the surface is concrete, whereas New Hampshire is asphalt. Often called “Bristol on Steroids,” Dover played host to the second race in the championship hunt.
Pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson got the field going on a cloudy afternoon. Heavy rain hit the track the night prior along with the early morning, which washed all the rubber build-up from the previous day’s Nationwide race, leaving the track completely green. It didn’t seem to phase Johnson as he jumped out in front of second-place starter, Juan Montoya.
Johnson would lead until the first caution came out on lap 25, which was a competition caution thrown by NASCAR so teams could look at tire wear. A majority of the lead cars came to pit road, with some electing to gamble early and go with two right-side tires, while teams like Johnson and Montoya opted for new tires all the way around.
It was Ryan Newman who led the field to the lap 30 restart by taking only two tires, but he didn’t get to test those tires out as the caution came out one lap later. Tony Stewart was racing rookie Joey Logano, when suddenly he got into his rear bumper as Logano ran into the back of Bobby Labonte. Logano slid up the track and collected Robby Gordon, Martin Truex Jr and Reed Sorenson. Logano’s car suddenly hooked an edge and began tumbling end-over-end across the track, flipping eight times before ending on it’s side.
The red flag was posted to allow the crews to clean up the track, while all the fans were hoping that Logano was alright after his tumble. Once his car was put back on it’s wheels, Logano climbed out of the torn up Home Depot Toyota, a little shaken, however completely uninjured. It was a welcome sight to see the young rookie get out of his race car on his own power.
After the red flag was lifted, a majority of the teams out front decided to stay on track because of little time on the new tires. The field went back to green on lap 38 with Newman leading Kurt Busch.
Despite only taking two tires, Newman was able to pull away right away from Busch, but after about ten laps, the worn left-side tires began to prove to be an issue as Busch ran down the No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet, eventually making the pass for the lead on lap 58. Busch would continue to hold the position until the third caution flag came out as Michael Waltrip blew a tire heading into turn 2, putting him in the outside wall.
Pit stops did not shake up the front of the field too much as it was Busch making his way back up front. Behind him, Greg Biffle and his brother, Kyle would be tailing him with Johnson restarting in fourth.
The front four had a nice battle for a few laps, but Kurt was able to put some space on his competitors. That was, until he got caught up in lapped traffic. Johnson had moved his way to second and finally caught Kurt while he was moving around lapped traffic. Finally, on lap 147, Johnson put his Lowe’s Chevrolet back out front.
The caution came out for the fourth time on lap 163 as fluid was spotted on track, and NASCAR wanted to get it dried up before an accident. The pit stops changed the field as it was Kurt getting the lead back followed by Johnson and Montoya. Jeff Gordon also managed to work his way into the top-five for the first time.
The field would restart on lap 168 with Busch out front followed by Johnson. It didn’t take very long to see Johnson make a challenge for the lead as he passed Busch on lap 176 for the lead. It would be a sight that fans and crews would get used to.
The field was slowed again on lap 207 as Kyle Busch got into the outside wall in turn 3. He would end up taking his car to the garage as the leaders came down pit road once again for service. Johnson once again held his lead but now his challenge came from his teammate Gordon as his crew got him back on track in second place.
On the restart, the two teammates got a great jump on the rest of the field as they put five car-lengths between them and the third-place car of Kurt Busch. Soon, Johnson began stretching out his lead, eventually putting a 3.5-second gap on the field. However, that lead was erased when David Stremme hit the wall in turn 4.
Pit stops did not change the front four as it was Johnson, Gordon, Kurt Busch and Montoya remaining out front. Johnson would again continue his stranglehold on the lead as the field went back to green on lap 276. Johnson was out to put a beating on the field as he once again pulled ahead of his competition.
The caution came out again on lap 324 for debris on the track, and it would mean the field would once again be coming to pit road for service, which would prove to be the final time for many of the leaders. Johnson again held his lead, but the loser on the round of stops was Gordon as his rear tire changer had issues with the air gun, dropping Gordon from second to seventh in the running order.
The restart now had Montoya and Mark Martin starting behind Johnson, and Montoya got a great jump on Martin and went to challenge for the lead. Martin would fall back to fifth, and unfortunately for Montoya, he could not make the move to the lead.
The eighth caution flew on lap 341 as Regan Smith spun on the front stretch, collecting Elliott Sadler, Truex Jr and Stremme. Some cars near the middle of the pack came in for service, but the surprise stop came from Gordon as he gave up the seventh spot for service. With just over 50 laps left, it would be a gamble on newer tires but one the team felt would be best.
The restart came on lap 347, and just as before Johnson pulled away to over a two-second advantage on the field. Gordon was making progress from his 12-place restart position and moved up to ninth as the race’s final caution came out on lap 368 when Sam Hornish Jr. spun out on the back straightaway.
No cars came in for service and the green flag came back out for the final time on lap 373. Johnson got the jump on the field, but Martin was trying to make his case for a win as he challenged Matt Kenseth for second. Martin made the pass on lap 384 and now set sights on his teammate.
Unfortunately, this time it was not meant to be. On this day, the Lowe’s Chevrolet was the dominant car. Johnson took the lead on lap 176 and never looked back as he took the checkered flag for the fourth time this season, winning the AAA 400 at Dover. Johnson would get ready to do his post-race burnout, but as he got ready, his engine let go, leaving him stuck on the track. Still, he got a little help getting the checkered flag and a well deserving escort to victory lane.
It is not hard to fathom that Johnson was dominant on this day, but through both races at Dover, Johnson was the car to beat both times. Of the 800 laps run at the “Monster Mile” this season, Johnson led 569 of them. That is pure domination.
Despite the win, Johnson is still second in points behind Martin, but the gap has shrunk to just ten points. That could be key for both drivers as next weekend the series heads to Kansas. Johnson won this race last year after a last-lap pass on Carl Edwards. It would have been Edwards winning the race after his pass one corner before, unfortunately his car slid up track and went into the wall, handing Johnson the victory.
Johnson is certainly a favorite heading into the race, but I’d keep an eye on the Roush team of Edwards and Greg Biffle. Edwards nearly won this race last year, but Biffle took his car to victory lane the year prior when the race was shortened due to darkness. These two will certainly be working towards the front.
My true dark horse in the race will be Jeff Gordon. Sure that’s odd, but remember Gordon won the first two races at Kansas in 2001 and 2002. He really runs well at this track and it is a perfect time to make some noise in the Chase standings. Watch for the DuPont Chevrolet to make a run to get back in the Championship Chase.
Coverage of the Price Chopper 400 from Kansas will be on ABC next Sunday starting at 1 p.m.
RESULTS: 1-Johnson 2-Martin 3-Kenseth 4-Montoya 5-Kurt Busch 6-Gordon 7-Allmendinger 8-Kahne 9-Stewart 10-Newman
NOTABLE FINISHES: 11-Edwards 13-Biffle 18-Vickers 20-Earnhardt Jr. 22-Hamlin 31-Kyle Busch 42-Logano (R)
CAUTIONS: Nine for 45 laps. Lap 25-29 (Competition), 31-35 (No. 20, 7, 1, 43, 14 wreck-T3), 84-88 (No. 55 wreck-T2), 163-167 (fluid on track), 207-210 (No. 18 wreck-T3 & T4), 272-276 (No. 12 wreck-T4), 324-328 (debris), 341-346 (No. 78, 1, 19 12 wreck-FS), 368-372 (No. 77 spin-BS)
LEADERS: Johnson 1-27, Gilliland 28, Newman 29-57, Kurt Busch 58-146, Johnson 147-165, Kurt Busch 166-175, Johnson 176-400. Six lead changes among four drivers.
CHASE STANDINGS: 1-Martin, 5400 points 2-Johnson, -10 3-Montoya, -65 4-Kurt Busch, -75 5-Stewart, -106 6-Hamlin, -108 7-Newman, -110 8-Gordon, -122 9-Biffle, -138 10-Vickers, -151 11-Edwards, -153 12-Kahne, -189