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Jimmie Johnson won three of the four races at Dover International Speedway in 2009 and 2010, so when he didn’t win either event last year, it was almost a strange thing to see.
But Johnson ended that drought and made some history Sunday when he drove to the win in the “FedEx 400 benefitting Autism Speaks” NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. It was his seventh victory at the Monster Mile, which ties David Pearson and Richard Petty for the most wins ever at Dover.
Johnson shared his usual Lowes Chevrolet with the new movie “Madagascar 3,” which comes out this Wednesday, and as part of the promotion spent a lot of time wearing a rainbow-colored afro wig that’s prominently featured in the film. Safe to say that if you’re going to do a lot of that, you’d better be ready to back it up with a win, which is what Johnson did. He dominated most of the race, leading 289 of the 400 laps, including the final 76.
“I’m just proud of this hair,” Johnson joked after the race. “It’s really brought some speed to the team. I could see our engine tuner who catches the front tires as they come across on the pit stops with [the wig] on today, and I got a laugh every time I came on to pit road.
“It was just a fun day. Clearly we had a fast race car, amazing pit stops. When you lead the most laps, sometimes at the end the way the cautions fall, it can backfire on the dominant car. The way the cautions fell today, it allowed us to really flex our muscle and bring home the win.”
But even still, Johnson needed some luck. The one car he couldn’t quite match was teammate Jeff Gordon, and as the race entered its final 100 laps, Gordon quickly opened a lead of more than five seconds over Johnson. Gordon took a green-flag pit stop at lap 324, hoping to make it the rest of the way after that and cycle back to the front. But the plan backfired 16 laps later when a caution came out for debris, stranding Gordon nearly two laps down. He couldn’t recover enough to become a threat and finished 13th.
“The fastest car doesn’t always win the race,” Gordon said. “And we’re sitting here in 13th or whatever; it’s silly.”
Johnson, who started on the outside of the front row, jockeyed for position with pole-sitter Mark Martin through the first 70 laps and again after a cycle of green-flag pit stops ended on lap 75. But once Johnson took the lead on lap 85, he didn’t relinquish it for 126 miles.
During that time, Gordon started to creep up on his teammate, and finally caught him on lap 211. Gordon and Johnson then traded the lead on and off until lap 244, when Gordon was forced to pit road by a vibration that ended up being a loose left rear wheel.
Johnson took the next 49 laps, but after a set of green-flag stops wrapped up on lap 298, Gordon jumped out ahead of everyone and began to drive away – only to be undone by the cautions. Overall, the situation left Gordon understandably frustrated.
“I can’t wait to see that debris on TV,” Gordon said. “I’d like to see it because I certainly never saw it. I’m not going to make any comments until I see what their reasoning for it was.”
Gordon did try to find a silver lining in the problem with his left-rear wheel.
“It didn’t go on right to begin with and the left-rear tire changer knew that,” Gordon said. “So when I started to complain about it, we knew that there might be an issue there and there was. So in some ways, we got fortunate today. I could have stayed out there and wrecked because it wasn’t really vibrating. It was getting real loose.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a strong day, finishing fourth. He didn’t think he had anything for his teammates though, and felt bad particularly for Gordon.
“I don’t think anybody could [have caught Johnson] but Jeff,” Earnhardt said, “man that 24 was fast. I know they’re disappointed; they did a great job. That car was amazing. I’m real happy for Hendrick Motorsports and all the employees. We’ve got the fastest cars in the business right now and they should be real proud.”
Points leader Greg Biffle retained the top spot in the standings, but his 11th place finish resulted in his lead shrinking from 10 points to a single point after Kenseth finished third.
“It was tough,” Biffle said. “We just fought balance all day. But we finished 11th and I wish I would have stayed out at the end. I came in and got tires and I thought more guys would come. We pitted ninth and finished 11th, so that probably wasn’t too smart.”
Kenseth, meanwhile, cited his high starting position (fifth) as a key to keeping his car near the front at the end.
“We really honestly struggled and didn’t have quite the setup that we needed,” he said. “My team did a good job of getting good pit stops and making some adjustments to keep us in the game there. I’m happy to come home third with a car that didn’t drive the way we wanted it to.”
Clint Bowyer finished fifth, followed by Aric Almirola, Martin Truex Jr, Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne and Marcos Ambrose in the top 10. Martin finished 14th despite holding the pole and leading 43 laps; he got knocked out of the top 10 at the green flag pit stops right before lap 300 and was never able to climb back.
The race got off to a rough start when, nine laps in, the largest wreck of NASCAR’s season to date took place off Turn 2. Landon Cassill was being closely followed by Tony Stewart, who in turn was closely followed by Regan Smith, as the trio entered the backstretch. Cassill lost his back end first, followed by Stewart, and then followed by Smith. It touched off a crash that collected a dozen cars and red-flagged the race for 20 minutes. Three of the cars were able to get back out, including Stewart, who finished 25th.
“I actually didn’t even feel [Stewart] touch me,” Cassill said. “I don’t know if he did. Tony is one of the most patient drivers and especially in this part of the race. If he even touched me or he didn’t, when there’s a car there it gets you real loose and I was already loose.”
The wreck was the only major incident – the only other time an accident brought out the yellow was when Carl Edwards lost a tire and hit the wall in Turn 2 on lap 165. There were two cautions for debris, including the one with which Gordon took issue, and three for engines that blew up – both Busch brothers lost their power plants in spectacular and smoky fashion, as did Jeff Burton. The seven cautions accounted for 32 laps and resulted in a race that ran at an average speed of 122.835 mph, which is the third-fastest race at Dover in the last 12 years.
But in the world of records, the big one belonged to Johnson, who reflected on tying the track record he now shares with Petty and Pearson.
“It’s just a huge honor,” he said. “I was never one that paid attention to stats. I just never thought I’d be a guy to build up any cool stats, but here I am with some pretty cool stats, with legends of our sport. I’m very proud of the seven wins here and to be in that very elite company.”
For complete race results, click here.