30 September 2013
Johnson restores sense of order to the Chase
Jimmie Johnson claimed a record eighth Cup win at Dover on Sunday afternoon to restore a sense of propriety to a Chase that's been through some tumultuous times of late.
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.
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.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
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