4 June 2012
Johnson monsters the Dover mile
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."
Dale Earnhardt Jr
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