By Brian Smith
Jimmie Johnson’s had better days at Dover. He’s had days when he’s led nearly 300 laps; he’s had days when he started from the pole and drove to the win. But if you’re going to ever win 10 races at one track, you’re going to need some luck somewhere along the line, and that’s what Johnson got on Sunday.
In what was just the second green-white-checkered NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finish in Dover history, Johnson drove away from Kevin Harvick and picked up his fourth victory of 2015 in the “FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks” NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Dover International Speedway. Johnson only led 23 laps, but it was enough to make him just the fifth driver in NASCAR history to win 10 or more races at the same track. Johnson joined Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and David Pearson in accomplishing the feat.
“74 race wins, 10 here – you can’t dream that way,” Johnson said afterward.
There had only been four cautions in the first 375 laps, but everything changed late in the race. There were three cautions in the final 25 miles, each of which did its own part to stir up the field and affect the outcome of the race.
The first came on lap 375 when Kyle Busch and Brian Scott got together. There were 11 cars on the lead lap at that point, nine of which came in for tires. The two that did not – Johnson and Harvick – went to the front of the field for the restart on lap 384.
But just two laps later, two of the cars that did take tires – Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin – got together on the back stretch and Hamlin lost out, spinning down the straightaway. The subsequent caution took the race to lap 390, when another restart again sent Johnson and Harvick out in front.
Finally, on lap 398, a three-car accident slowed the field for a third time. But, also for a third time, Johnson drove away from the field and this time made it to the checkered flag without further incident, keeping Harvick from what would have been his first win at the Monster Mile.
“We just struggled at the end of the race on the restarts,” Harvick said. “Really, we had trouble all day with them. When you look at Dover, it’s been a good race track for us. We’ve led laps, but haven’t quite finished it yet.”
Kyle Larson finished third after starting in the same position, picking up another solid day at a track that has been among his best in his young career.
“It was a good day,” Larson said. “We were good for most of the race. Around the midpoint of the race we got really tight. I don’t know why. Then we freed up a lot and got better. I was able to line up in the right lines those last three restarts and gain a couple spots each time. It was our first good run of the year. Hopefully we’ll have many more and this will transition into some momentum for our team.”
Hamlin had been one of the top drivers of the day until his late mishap. He started from the pole and was fastest in both of Saturday’s practice sessions, and subsequently was hoping it would be the day he finally took a win at Dover after many years of disappointment. Hamlin led the first 41 laps, and after yielding to Truex for the next 35, proceeded to lead 67 more following a restart off the day’s first caution.
In the meantime, Johnson was quietly moving into position. He qualified 14th, but moved up to fifth place by the time the first caution flew. At that point though, his forward momentum kind of stopped.
“The top five cars were so equal you couldn’t pass,” Johnson said. “My team did a great job of getting me a couple spots on pit stops, but I’d get back out there and get caught up and lose them again. I was just hopeful I could put pressure on the car in front of me and they’d make a mistake and I could get by, but those guys are all pretty good.”
As the day went on, Johnson was able to keep himself in position to make his late move.
“I was finally able to get to [Harvick] with 25 to go, and that first caution came out,” he said. “I was just telling myself in the car, this is an all-or-nothing situation. You need clean air. With control of the restarts and having lane selection, that was huge for the last two restarts we had. Once we had our opportunity, we took advantage of it.”
Meanwhile, the next caution helped Johnson a bit, but was detrimental to Hamlin. Bowyer drove into the back of Hamlin out of turn 2 with 15 laps remaining, sending Hamlin to a 21st-place finish.
Another driver who found frustration in the day was Martin Truex Jr., who for the third consecutive week led the most laps but didn’t win the race. He was in front for 131 orbits of the Monster Mile, matching the number of laps he led last week at Charlotte. The week prior, he led 95 laps at Kansas. But traffic on the final restart prevented him from taking a run at what would have been his second career win, both at Dover and overall. He wrapped up in sixth.
“We had a good car today but it was never right,” Truex said. “We were never right yesterday all through practice. We made some changes today and we made some gains on it, but never really got it where we needed it. Clean air was huge. When we were out front, we were okay. It just never turned good all day long and eventually caught up to us.”
Kasey Kahne was fourth, followed by Aric Almirola, Truex, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Bowyer, and Jeff Gordon in the top 10. Joey Logano finished 11th as the last car on the lead lap.
Harvick’s second-place finish allowed him to leave Dover with a 44-point lead in the standings over Truex, with Johnson and Logano tied for third at 76 points back. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is fifth, followed by Brad Keselowski, McMurray, Kahne, Gordon and Almirola.
The race ran at an average speed of 119.547 MPH, with 15 lead changes among nine drivers. There were a total of seven cautions for 40 laps.