Jimmie Johnson celebrates in victory lane after winning the AAA 400 at Dover Speedway on Sunday. (Reuters)
DOVER, Del. — Jimmie Johnson became the first driver not named Matt Kenseth to win a race in this year’s Chase for the Cup postseason when he drove to victory in the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway on Sunday.
Johnson also collected the most points possible in the third race for the Chase by leading the most laps — 243 of the 400 — and leapfrogging Kyle Busch to move into second place, eight points behind Matt Kenseth.
Johnson also became the all-time wins leader at Dover, claiming his eighth-career victory at the track.
“We came to a good track, and we got what we needed to get done,” Johnson said.
His Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., finished second. A third Hendrick driver, Jeff Gordon, also posted a top-five finish, finishing fourth. Joey Logano was third and Kyle Busch rounded out the top-five.
“These are two of the best cars I’ve had all year the last two weeks,” Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt restarted the race fourth after taking on four fresh tires during the final caution on lap 369, while all three drivers in front of him — Johnson, Gordon and Kenseth — took only two tires. He was able to take advantage once the race returned to green, getting by both Gordon and Kenseth on the restart.
He wasn’t able to catch Johnson, though.
“That was really disappointing, there, but Jimmie was just that fast,” Earnhardt said.
Like Earnhardt, Logano was also among the drivers who took four tires during the final yellow flag and gained positions on most of those with only two. While Gordon and dropped back to fourth by the finish, Kenseth fell back to finish in seventh.
Earnhardt started on the pole and dominated the first quarter of the race, leading 76 laps before the first cycle of green-flag pit stops got underway just past lap 110. Earnhardt lost several positions as a result of missing pit road on his first attempt to make a pit stop under green.
As a result of the flub, Earnhardt wound up eighth after the cycle of stops completed.
“I take full responsibility for being a little too eager to get on pit road,” Earnhardt said. “Messed up getting on pit road, for sure.”
Johnson cycled into the lead and then dominated much of the race. The three drivers who headed into Dover in the top-three of the points standings — Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Johnson — dominated until Earnhardt made his way back up to second on a restart that followed a caution that came out on lap 226.
Gordon worked his way up to third on lap 266 to give Hendrick a monopoly on the top three spots.
During the next set of green-flag stops with just over 90 laps to go, Earnhardt lost time getting on pit road. This time around, though, that lost time came as a result of getting stuck behind Mark Martin.
Earnhardt was able to remain in the top-five, winding up fourth after the cycle completed. Meanwhile, Johnson had the lead, Kenseth was second and Gordon was third.
That green-flag cycle of stops came just outside the window of most teams being able to go the remainder of the race without stopping again for fuel. Willing to take a gamble, Gordon was among the few to try to conserve fuel to go the rest of the way.
“I was saving most of that run and had that strategy down, for sure,” Gordon said.
The decision of whether or not to try stretching fuel mileage or stopping for a splash of fuel late in the race became unnecessary when the yellow flag came out one last time on lap 369. Then the decision became one of whether to take two or four tires for the run to the finish.
“Two worked good for us in practice,” Johnson said. Track position really gave me the advantage I needed to hold him (Earnhardt) off.”
NOTES: In the 10 years since the Chase format was implemented, Johnson has won 24 percent of all Chase races. … The winner of the fall Dover race has gone on to win the Sprint Cup three out of the past four seasons. … NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Bobby Allison are the two drivers Johnson was tied with on the all-time Dover wins list before Sunday’s victory. … With the win, Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus also became the winningest crew chief at Dover with eight, breaking a tie with Leonard Wood of Wood Brothers Racing.