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Just eight days previously, fans and pundits had been fretting about whether Jimmie Johnson had lost his edge. Approaching the midway point of the Sprint Cup regular season and still lacking any of the wins that are now all-important under the new Chase format introduced this year, the question was whether the reigning Cup champion still had it in him to get another title.
Last weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Johnson silenced his critics with an impressive win in the Coca-Cola 600. And now this week at Dover International Speedway he's just made all the former doubters look very silly indeed after also winning the FedEx 400 - and crushing the opposition in doing so. He led for 272 of the 400 laps on Sunday afternoon on his way to his 68th victory in 448 Cup starts and his ninth at Dover alone - more than any other driver in series history.
"It was an awesome race car," said Johnson in victory lane. "Once the track 'rubbered in' our car came to life and it was so good. It's amazing that we can stay on top of things here with the different generation car, different rules, different tyres. This place just fits my style and [crew chief] Chad Knaus' style."
The first part of the race actually belonged to Kyle Busch, who had been bidding to complete a hat-trick at Dover having already won the Truck and Nationwide Series races earlier in the weekend. He had surged past pole winner Brad Keselowski at the green flag to lead the first 81 laps of the race, but then started to fade and had been passed by Johnson and Kevin Harvick. He then came under pressure from Clint Bowyer, who had almost passed the Joe Gibbs Racing car on lap 124 when he moved up too soon and knocked the #18 into a hard hit against the wall, ending Busch's day on the spot. Bowyer's spotter Brett Griffin later apologised for the miscall.
"I hated to be in that situation with the #18," said Bowyer. "It's one of those deals where I thought I was clear obviously and wasn't and ruined his day and certainly didn't help mine."
After that, the main threat to Johnson's domination was Kevin Harvick, but the Stewart-Haas Racing driver's day ended up in frustration when he suffered damage to a tyre stem shortly after the race had restarted following a red flag as a result of the track's concrete surface starting to break up in turn 2. That had caused a cut tyre to Jamie McMurray's car, sending the #1 into the wall on lap 158. It wasn't the first red flag stoppage of the day however, with a shorter interruption having already been caused by the clean-up required for a multi-car accident on lap 134 involving Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Greg Biffle and AJ Allmendinger.
"We were really loose," explained Stenhouse, whose #17 car was too badly damaged to continued. "The #47 jumped to the inside of us there and I tried to stay out of his way and he got me. We met right-rear to left-front and it got him sideways and everything else happened after that.
"We didn't want it to end that way and we got our teammate caught up in it and tore up a lot of cars," sighed the Roush Fenway Racing driver. "That is now what we wanted to do. It is a tough end to our day. It is a bummer. We started the race so loose and we were hoping we could get it tightened up and be able to make some ground up but we were just really, really loose."
"Inside of the car I didn't really know what happened," added Biffle. "I just knew that the #47 got into us pretty hard and turned us into the fence. After watching the replay I see what happened. They were racing hard back there and he stuck it into a hole that maybe there wasn't room for. There definitely wasn't room come three-quarters of the way around the corner I guess and he slid off the bottom and got his right-rear caught by the #17 and up into us. It was a chain reaction."
Once Harvick departed from contention for the race, Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth briefly took up the baton and led for 13 laps but then Johnson took point for the next 185 laps with only single lap interruptions during pit stops, pulling out a lead of nearly five seconds at one point. However a debris caution on lap 361 wiped out that advantage, and also allowed Clint Bowyer to win the race off pit road with a two-tyre-only call. That didn't phase Johnson, however, and his own four new tyres enabled him to swat aside the threat of the Michael Waltrip Racing #15 within seconds of the green flag and start racing away again.
The field was given one last chance to carry the fight to Johnson when Casey Mears' tyre disintegrated on lap 393 to bring out a final caution and set up a four-lap shoot-out to the chequered flag. After Bowyer attempted to give him a push-boost from behind at the green flag, Kenseth made contact with the wall which allowed Brad Keselowski to take over second position.
"I was just trying to help him," said Bowyer. "We were all spinning like crazy and I had a pretty good run at him. I knocked him into the wall and I was like: 'Not another Gibbs (Racing) car!'" recalling having already inadvertently put Kenseth's team mate Kyle Busch out of the running earlier in the day.
But in any case Johnson already had a jump on the rest and despite some hard charging in the final minutes of the race there was nothing anyone could do other than watch Johnson claim the chequered flag for the second consecutive week.
"Cautions at the end – it's an opportunity for the guy that's dominated all day to make a mistake," said Johnson said. "So, I wanted to make sure I chose the right lane and got a good restart."
Behind Keselowski and Kenseth, Bowyer held on for fourth place ahead of Denny Hamlin who overcame an early pit lane speeding penalty. Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart and Joey Logano rounded out the top eight ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Paul Menard; Jeff Gordon finished in 15th place after falling back following a strong mid-race run that had him up into second place behind his Hendrick Motorsport team mate Johnson.
In the Sprint Cup Series championship standings, third place on Sunday for Matt Kenseth sees him take the lead by two points over Jeff Gordon while Carl Edwards moves up two spots to third. The big loser in this week's event was Kyle Busch who drops back four spots to seventh place after being classified in 42nd place at Dover. As for Johnson, he's in fourth place in the points standings and this seems to be just the start of his championship charge.
"We can get on a roll," said Johnson, who is now already assured of a spot in the 2014 Chase and can now afford to go into the second half of the regular season just racing for the race win without risking his title bid. "We've got some good tracks ahead for us. I think that tracks really build momentum for teams and drivers, and going to Charlotte is a great track, here is a great track for us, Pocono next weekend is Chad's favorite racetrack, and I think you can look ahead at the summer months and see who historically runs well at different tracks and kind of pick your favourites."
Full race results
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