After the uproar of Richmond that left the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series play-offs with an unprecedented 13-driver line-up, and then the spectacular conspicuous success of Joe Gibbs Racing duo Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch at Chicagoland and New Hampshire, the series probably needed a nice, calm, ordinary weekend in which to catch its breath and settle its nerves. And for times like that, there's nothing that says 'normality is restored' quite as clearly as the sight of five-time champion Jimmie Johnson dominating the proceedings and crossing the line first to claim the chequered flag.

"We came to a good track and we got what we needed to, done," said Johnson as be celebrated his win in victory lane. "Just a very fast race car ... I'm very excited. I'm very happy to have Mr Hendrick here. I wish that I had my family here. I want to say hi to my girls at home. Thank you to all the fans and to Sprint. This is just an awesome day and awfully timely in the scheme of things."

Despite the fact that the result of the race was notable in multiple ways - Johnson's victory in Sunday's AAA 400 is the eighth win he's claimed in Cup races at the one-mile Dover International Speedway, an all-time high that beats the previous tie he'd held with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison; and it was also the first time that all top ten spots in a Chase race had been filled by title contenders - the race itself itself was as close to being a typical day at the office as you can get in a sport that involves running around at speeds of over 150mph. There were no on-track incidents or accidents for the entire three hour running time, with just four cautions all afternoon and every one of them for debris or fluid on the track that needed cleaning up.

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Right from the start, the Hendrick camp had laid down a statement of intent to put a stop to the annoying JGR habit of winning things. Their man Dale Earnhardt Jr. successfully converted pole to an early lead, and when Kenseth had the temerity to poke his nose in front of the #88 on lap 26 it was only a couple of minutes before Junior took care of that sort of nonsense and reasserted his authority on the proceedings. There was no way that he or the rest of the Hendrick camp were going to allow Kenseth to become the first man in history to sweep the first three races of the Chase, not if they could possibly help it.

The first debris caution materialised on lap 37 which allowed the field to make their first round of pit stops. While others went for four tyres, Kyle Busch opted for an early two-tyre gambit - a ploy more exploratory in nature if anything as he researched possible strategies for later in the afternoon. It worked well enough to start with once the race went green, but soon the #18's pace started to suffer and on lap 70 he began to fall back down the positions leaving the lead first to Ryan Newman and then back in the hands of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who brought along his team mate Jimmie Johnson as his wingman for the occasion.

Earnhardt had no trouble maintaining the lead until the next round of pit stops, which this time were under green flag conditions on lap 118. But Earnhardt struggled to make the awkward pit road entrance and overshot the commitment line, forcing him to pull out and come around a second time - a costly error that dropped him down to eighth place after the cycle of stops and handed the lead over to Johnson. Although Earnhardt would slowly work his way back to the front, he would never again enjoy such another long spell in the lead and he put this early error down as the major reason for why he wasn't able to clinch the win at the end of the day.

"Yeah, I take responsibility for getting a little too eager coming onto pit road for that green flag stop," he sighed later. "That track position is really important and I gave that up early in the race with that mistake coming onto pit road. And it cost us a shot at the win there.

"We're lucky we didn't have more trouble through that whole deal. I didn't know what the heck the rules are for that, so I was figuring we got off pretty light," he added. "I'll take responsibility for that mess-up coming on pit road for sure."

Although it was a setback for Earnhardt he was still running strongly, and instead it was Kurt Busch who was the first of the Chase contenders to hit real trouble at Dover when he was forced to make an unscheduled pit stop on lap 159 with a loose right rear tyre. The Furniture Row Racing team had been experimenting with a new car crew this weekend drawing on some of the best talent from Nationwide Series teams, but the kinks clearly hadn't been quite been fully worked out. Busch had been steadily fuming about the #78's loose handling, which had totally missed the mark for what he needed even before the loose wheel mishap.

"We were way off at the start, but after the first pit stop we made some good changes to the car and started to make a move. But once again we had an issue with a loose wheel and that put us a couple of laps down," he explained later. "Nothing went our way today ... This is the Chase and you can't afford to have these problems. We need to regroup and get it together for Kansas next week."

Having gone three laps down from the stop, salt was rubbed into the wound when NASCAR called a debris caution just a few minutes later than cemented his disadvantage, and led to Busch fuming over his team radio that it was a case of "Let's scan the #78 to see what the driver's attitude is." At this point, the answer to that one was 'not fit for broadcasting.' It really was like old times again.

Matt Kenseth won the race off pit road and led Johnson, Newman and Earnhardt Jr. to the green flag on lap 171, all the leaders having learned from Kyle Busch's earlier experimentation and stuck with the safety of four-tyre changes. Kenseth was set fair for the start of this phase, but just before the midway point of the 400-lap race Johnson moved down low and passed the #20 through turn 4 on lap 198. With 12 of the 13 Chase contenders in the top 15 - Kurt Busch being the obvious exception by this stage - it was hard to see how the race could be going any more to plan.

That wasn't the case for the reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski, however: it hadn't escaped his notice (the media had made sure of that) that Sunday marked the first anniversary of his last win in the championship, and he had come into the day's event intent on setting that to rights. But that ambition came to an abrupt end on lap 226 when the #2 made a sudden high-speed dive onto pit road with Keselowski reporting a strong smell of burning in the cockpit.

"Something in the rear end housing went out and burned itself up. I'm sure everything is screaming hot down there," he told reporters as the crew got to work making emergency repairs that left Keselowski over 40 laps down by the time he returned to the race.

Keselowski added that he'd had little warning of impending problems. "I didn't have much, but the crew guys had a bunch when they did the last pit stop. They noticed a lot of oil in the wheel well, so we tried to get off the track as fast as we could with the Miller Lite Ford to not bring out a yellow, but obviously wasn't quite quick enough."

Keselowski's car had indeed dropped fluid down on the track to trigger the third caution of the afternoon. After pit stops, Johnson led at the restart on lap 236 while Earnhardt made an aggressive play to win second place ahead of the ever-present JGR duo of Kenseth and Busch, and then things settled down again which saw a long unbroken stint of 137 caution-free laps ensue in which Johnson led for all but four during a cycle of green flag pit stops.

The long quiet spell suited the Hendrick squad, Johnson and Earnhardt now joined at the front by the third of their four cohorts Jeff Gordon who muscled his way past the JGR blockade to give the leaders some extra support and breathing space at the front. In any case, Kenseth and Busch weren't looking in such a strong state at this stage and were starting to fall back, Penske's Joey Logano moving past Busch for fifth place on lap 282.

With no cautions to extend the run, the pit stops played out around lap 312 and were uneventful, but also too early for any of the cars to make it home without a further stop - even the most extreme of fuel conservation strategies wasn't going to earn them the 10-15 laps deficits they had at this stage. There was palpable relief when this headache was resolved for them by a debris caution on lap 370 which allowed everyone to make their final stop under yellow. The only question remaining to be resolved was the age-old "two tyres, or four?" and most everyone went for four to be on the safe side, fearing that two would leave them a sitting duck at the restart.

Among the leaders, there were three high profile exceptions to that gamble: the leader Jimmie Johnson, who was joined in his decision by Gordon and Kenseth. The others - Earnhardt, Logano, Busch and all - were all on a full set of fresh tyres and raring to do when the green came out. Had Johnson just thrown away his chance of setting a new record?

As it turned out, no he hadn't. Once again the strategy call of the superlative Jimmie Johnson-Chad Knaus brains trust had it right, and Johnson was able to maintain his track position advantage even as Earnhardt put his foot down, rapidly moved back into second and then was all over the back of the #48 for position. But catching and passing are too very different things as any racing driver will tell you, and Johnson was able to defend his line and thwart Earnhardt's every parry. Perhaps if there were more than just 26 laps to run then Johnson's set of older mixed tyres would have taken its toll and the #48 would have been unable to keep up the defence, but in the time remaining and with no more cautions in the offing before the chequered flag it was precisely the right call and was rewarded with all-access passes to victory lane for the post-race celebrations.

"Jimmie was just that good - I thought that four tyres were going to be enough to get to him and get him out of the way, but he is just that fast around here," reported Earnhardt as he ended up nearly half a second off his team mate at the line. "I thought we might be able to get to him and I was definitely going to do whatever I could to win if I could get within reach, but I just couldn't get to him."

"Two worked good for us in practice," explained Johnson, underlining that a win in NASCAR is the product of a whole weekend's R&D on the track and not simply just three hours of racing on a Sunday afternoon. "Believe me, I wanted to see four tyres line-up in the fourth or fifth row - when they lined up right behind me, I thought I was going to have my hands full. And I really did. Junior drove a whale of a race and track position really gave me the advantage I needed to hold him off."

Four tyres also helped Joey Logano surge his way into third position by the end, although he admitted that it had taken longer to 'switch on' his tyres in that final sprint to the finish than he ideally needed.

"It just took a little bit too long there on the last restart," he said. "I was able to get up to third, I was in the right lane, but by the time my car came to me I was too late.

"We were the fastest car the last six laps, but it doesn't really matter when you can barely see the leaders," he shrugged. "Unfortunately, that was our day - but overall we can't be too disappointed with a third-place finish. It's just that you always want to be a little better."

Jeff Gordon might not have been able to prevent Earnhardt and Logano from getting past him in those final minutes, but he was still able to hold off Kyle Busch for fourth place despite also gambling on the two-tyre strategy.

"We had moments where I felt like we had the best car and there were moments where I felt like we were one of the worst cars," said Gordon of his day. "Then we had to make a decision on two tyres, four tyres: I felt like two was going to be the right thing. It worked out for Jimmie to win it. Congrats to him, but just didn't work out for us. Our car just didn't take off very good there."

Gordon was one of the few to reveal that the #24 had indeed been hoping to make it virtually all the way to the finish on a fuel-saving strategy: "Man, I did not want to see that last caution. I felt like we were really in the perfect position fuel mileage wise, tyres, speed of the car, we were just sitting there riding trying to get to the end.

"We came in [at the penultimate stop], stretched it as far as we could and the team did an excellent job getting it full of fuel. I was saving [fuel] most of that run," he confirmed. "We were four short. But it doesn't matter. The caution came out and we just did not have a short run car."

As for Busch, despite playing 'safe' with four tyres in that final stop, the #18's handling had just got away from them in the latter half of the race and that coupled with an inside line position for the final restart had just been too much of a handicap to allow him to do any better than fifth.

"If I could've got the outside lane on the final restart I probably could've finished third, but we didn't get that," he said. "We had to fight through it and pass a couple cars the hard way and we ended up fifth. It's certainly the finish that our car was today. It's frustrating to be fifth, but yet you look at the grand scheme of things and it's three straight top-fives to start the Chase so not bad."

With Kenseth's two-tyre call dropping the #20 down to seventh place behind Kevin Harvick at the finish, Busch actually closes up to just 12 points off the championship lead after the first three events of the ten-race Chase. But Busch also loses a position to Jimmie Johnson, who springs up a place into the runners-up spot as the five-time champ threatens to build the sort of title-winning momentum that's seen him through to play-off success so many times in the past.

"I still think it's too early to say somebody can make a move," said Johnson when asked whether the title battle was boiling down to a three-man fight. "When you put the #18 and #20 up there, it's going to make it a very difficult deal ... I know that the #20 is going to be awfully strong for the rest of the stretch, and I look forward to racing with him.

"You just don't want to give points up. Today we got max points so we didn't leave any on the table and we will go to Kansas next week and see what we can do," he added.

Top six finishes for Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick also do wonders for their Chase hopes, but there was disaster at Dover for one of the pre-Chase favourites for the title race when Carl Edwards' Roush Fenway Racing #99 was sidelined late in the race by a broken left rear hub that consigned him to 35th place in the final results.

"I thought we might have a shot at making a top-three or four out of it, but something broke in the left-rear," he signed later. "I don't know what it was, but I don't think it was any fault of my guys ... We just weren't fast [but] we needed to hang on for a solid finish and something broke, so that's tough."

In the Chase standings Edwards plummets seven places to 11th, 65 points off the championship leader and effectively joining Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne as those drivers already out of the running for the 2013 title. Despite his strong run to second at Dover, Earnhardt also looks to have dropped too far back to stand much of a realistic chance, and the trio consisting of Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch also need to pull something spectacular out of the bag if they're not to be the next to slip out of contention as the Chase rolls into October and the end of the season draws ever nearer.

Full race results, an interview with race winner Jimmie Johnson and Sprint Cup Championship standings are available.