All that fretting about how long it was taking for Hendrick Motorsports' drivers to get that landmark 200th win are a distant memory now; as is the sight of anything other than a Hendrick car cruising up victory lane at the end of a race.
"So proud of the effort," said Jimmie Johnson as he relaxed afterwards at Dover International Speedway, "It was a brand new race car we brought to the track, had never seen a racetrack before and it rolled off the truck and was awesome all weekend long."
Johnson had only missed pole position by five thousandths of a second on Saturday, and started alongside the veteran race when the green flag fell at the start of the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at the Monster Mile on Sunday afternoon. Johnson took the lead from Martin on the first lap, but the old guy wasn't letting Johnson get away and duly fought back, taking the spot back just as the first yellow came out on lap 9.
The yellow quickly morphed into a red, because the backstretch of the one-mile concrete oval track was now completely blocked by a multi-car wreck. It had started when Landon Cassill moved down the track in front of Tony Stewart and got the slightest tap on the back that started him spinning ever-so-slowly sideways; Stewart immediately tried to back off in order to let Cassill save it, but then from behind Regan Smith arrived unaware of what was going in. He went into the back of Stewart, which didn't help Cassill who promptly lost his battle to save his own car, and after that - well, it was just a chain reaction.
As well as Stewart, Smith and Cassill, those involved were Juan Montoya, Scott Speed, Stephen Leicht, Dave Blaney, David Gilliland, Michael McDowell and Joe Nemechek. Stewart's car was a wreck but the team got to work and got it out in some semblance of order, albeit 70 laps down; Smith was almost 90 laps down when he finally returned to the track, and Montoya toured around over a hundred laps off the lead. Cassill himself was done for the day.
"I got into the back of the #14 and started the whole thing," said Regan Smith. "I'll take full blame for that," he added - quite wrongly as it turned out, as he had simply not been aware of what had been going on up ahead. "Somehow they got checked up in front of me. I just didn't have time to get slowed up with it. I hate that there are so many wrecked race cars here."
"It wasn't Regan's fault," corrected Stewart, who unfortunately had the best seat in the house to know. "He was right behind us, and he didn't have anywhere to go either. Just not a real good deal at the beginning of the race like this."
After a 20 minute red flag, the racing resumed. Martin was able to hold the lead for the next two dozen laps, but finally he succumbed to Johnson on lap 30. Behind them, Matt Kenseth had bested Ryan Newman for third place, and Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer was tussling over fifth. Bowyer won that one, and made easy work of Newman to find himself in a somewhat lonely fourth place on the track some way back from the leaders.
The first round of green flag pit stops came around lap 70, and Martin managed to get the jump on Johnson to reclaim the lead for a short while until Johnson simply reasserted himself back out on the track and went in front again and swiftly started building up a lead over over two seconds; Martin was waning, and behind him Johnson's Hendrick teammate and fellow multiple Cup champion Jeff Gordon was on the move and past Kenseth for third place, setting his sights on the #55 Aarons car.
Before Gordon could deliver on that threat, the track was under caution for David Reutimann's engine blowing up. Martin's car was clearly not what it had been earlier in the day and he soon lost places to Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon in quick succession. Of them all, it was Jeff Gordon who was really on it and who picked up the gauntlet thrown down by his team mate, leaving old friends Busch and Harvick to discuss third place amongst themselves.
Harvick has just won that battle when the third caution was out: Carl Edwards had hit the wall in turn 2 on lap 164: "Our front right tire went flat, I don't know exactly why," he said. "Hopefully we can get back out there and get some points. It is so frustrating to have that good of a car [and go out.] I love racing here."
After a round of pit stops under the yellow, the restart saw a Hendrick 1-2-3 at the front with Johnson and Gordon now joined by Dale Earnhardt Jr. ahead of Harvick and Kenseth. Kyle Busch, meanwhile, was far away from the front in 19th place after having to come back into pit lane a second time because of a loose tyre; even after that second stop there was something seriously wrong with the #18, and just past the halfway point of the 400-lap race the engine breathed its last and Busch had no choice but to crawl into the garage area and call it a day.
"Unfortunately we had a valve spring break and then dropped the valve, which hit the pistons,” said Busch, a two-time winner at Dover in 2008 and 2010. "It's real unfortunate. You know, we had good car. We were running up front there. We were biding our time."
Johnson had been leading and it looked like the two Hendricks cars were formation flying (Earnhardt had been picked off by Harvick for third, however). Sure enough, Johnson did all but roll out the red carpet to invite Gordon to take up residency in the lead for a while, which lasted through another round of pit stops under a debris caution on lap 226. Gordon and Johnson resumed at the front, but Kevin Harvick overshot his pit stall and dropped down to 19th place as a result leaving Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer on the second row for the restart ahead of Earnhardt.
But Gordon's strong run was about to hit a problem: on lap 249 he slowed and radioed in to his pit crew that the car felt "weird", forcing him into an unscheduled and costly pit stop for an emergency diagnosis.
"I'm not really sure what happened, but obviously something happened," he said later. "We definitely had a loose left rear. It didn't go on right to begin with and the left-rear tire-changer knew that. And so when I started to complain about it, we knew that there might be an issue there and there was. So, in some ways we got fortunate today. I could have stayed out there and wrecked because it wasn't really vibrating [but] it was getting real loose."
With Martin no where in sight and Gordon also out of the running, that left Johnson virtually unchallenged for the rest of the afternoon, almost 4s ahead of Kenseth. Because of his off-sync pit stops, Gordon did briefly retake the lead on lap 300 when everyone else came in for their next routine fuel-and-tyres call, but then he was in himself was in on lap 325 and promptly dropped off the lead lap and down to 19th position, although at least he needed no more pit stops to make it the full distance
But any remaining hopes Gordon might have had of recovering were dashed when a debris caution came out on lap 5. Gordon got his lap back as everyone else came in for their final round of stops, but there was little hope he would be able to get all the way back to the front in the remaining 60 laps. When a sixth caution came out almost immediately after the restart for Kurt Busch's engine blowing up, Gordon at least had an opportunity to pit for fresh rubber to try and make a go of it, but in the end 13th place immediately in front of Mark Martin would be the best he could achieve.
"We don't care about finishing top 15 or top 10 right now, that does nothing for us [in the championship standings.] We need wins," he said. "The fastest car doesn't always win the race. We're sitting here in 13th or whatever - it's silly."
The next green flag stint lasted just 11 laps before another engine expired - this time in Jeff Burton's car. That left what turned out to be the final restart with Johnson still dominating from the front, followed by Harvick who had recovered from his earlier pit stop fumble, then Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth. Harvick kept him honest, and the margin was tighter than Johnson had enjoyed over his rivals for much of the day, but he still had 2.5s over everyone else when the chequered flag came out without any further dramas.
"Just a fun day," summed up a completely relaxed Johnson in victory lane. "Clearly we had a fast race car, amazing pit stops. Strategy, when you lead the most laps, sometimes at the end the way the cautions fall it can backfire on the dominant car, and the way cautions fell today, it allowed us to really flex our muscle and bring home the win."
As he celebrated his 57th victory in 376 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series after leading over two thirds of the race (289 of 400 laps), Johnson's smile beamed out from under a garishly multi-coloured wig that he had been wearing to match the #48's livery for the day to promote the release of the animated film Madagascar 3,
- and he seemed to be enjoying the one-off change of image.
"I'm just proud of this hair!" he joked. "The hair really brought some speed to the team. I could see our engine tuner who is catching the front tires that came across on pit stops, and I got a laugh every time I came on to pit road."
Johnson's high spirits were well deserved, with the victory putting him just 33pts off Greg Biffle in fifth position in the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings, at the midway point of the regular season Race for the Chase. Biffle had finished in 11th place at Dover and found his lead eroded to just one point by Matt Kenseth, who finished third behind Harvick on Sunday. Earnhardt's fourth place this week pushed him up one place above Denny Hamlin the standings.Full race results
and NASCAR Sprint Cup championship standings