After leading 289 of 400 laps and beating Kevin Harvick to the finish line by 2.550 seconds to earn a record-tying seventh victory at Dover International Speedway — matching Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Bobby Allison — Johnson’s words couldn’t ring more true.
Although Johnson posted his 57th career victory in 376 starts, and his second win of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Hendrick Motorsports showed tremendous speed and progress among all four drivers Sunday.
Jeff Gordon led three times for 60 laps. After the second run at the point, a loose left-rear wheel 18 laps into a green-flag run forced Gordon to pit on Lap 250. He lost a lap in the pits and dropped to 19th. Gordon regained the lead on Lap 298 during pit stops and was so dominant that Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus radioed to his driver, “We’ve got the guys on our lap covered except for the 24 — who is going faster than we are now, and he hasn’t pitted yet.”
Gordon was forced to pit on Lap 324 and cycled out to 19th position, the second car one lap down. Although the team gambled and stopped for tires with 31 laps remaining in the race, Gordon was mired in traffic 15 positions behind the leader. He finished 13th but was much stronger than his results.
“It’s always more frustrating when you’ve got a car that can win; and you show it by going up there and taking the lead,” said Gordon, who moved to 21st in points but is 94 points outside of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. “We don’t care about finishing top 15 or top 10 right now. That does nothing for us. We need wins.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. started 17th, but after the first round of green-flag pit stops began on Lap 69, his No. 88 Chevrolet moved into the top 10 in the field and never left. Earnhardt led one lap and finished fourth behind Matt Kenseth. It was his only top five at the Monster Mile since joining Hendrick Motorsports, and Earnhardt’s best result since he finished third in the fall race in 2007.
Although Earnhardt’s car wasn’t as solid as those of his teammates Johnson and Gordon, what was significant about his race was the No. 88 team’s ability to dial in the car as the track changed dramatically from one run to the next. Over the final 100 laps, Earnhardt kept relaying to his team it was the best the car had been all day.
“We’ve got the fastest cars in the business right now,” Earnhardt said. “They ought to be real proud. We were just a little loose on breaking getting into the corner and couldn’t really challenge Matt (Kenseth) or anybody really around us. Wherever you kind of settled in after the restart is kind of where you were. We had a good car, though. We had good speed.
“It was a good day for us, a good points day. I run as hard as I could run. I didn’t have anything left. We are getting close. We are finishing good when we are not winning. I can’t complain too much about how we are doing. We’ve got some tricky tracks coming up for us. The summer months aren’t really my thing, the tracks at least, but hopefully we can have some more good runs.”
Hendrick Motorsports newcomer Kasey Kahne picked up his seventh consecutive top-10 finish after posting a ninth-place effort. Kahne had issues with the front end of his car, dropped to 15th with 100 laps remaining and had his progress slowed by seven cautions throughout the race. Still, he thinks “it’s awesome to be a part” of the organization’s recent success.
“That’s four weeks in a row for Hendrick Motorsports,” Kahne said. “So everybody is doing a great job.
“At times, we were the best car, and the rest of the race we were not even close. So it was just a difficult struggle for us.”
Still, fresh off Kahne’s win at Charlotte Motor Speedway last weekend, the No. 5 team continues to make gains and earned another spot in the standings. He’s now 14th — one point behind Ryan Newman in the standings.
But for now the competition has to be worried about Johnson. Having three solid squads surrounding him will only make the No. 48 team stronger. Although Johnson’s win didn’t elevate the team in the points standings, he now trails Greg Biffle by just 33 points. And what Johnson has noticed over the past month is a team that is “refining our package and not making mistakes.”
“That happened at Darlington, and (the) All-Star race went our way, and today was flawless; no mistakes, and we had the speed to back it up,” Johnson said.
So is it too early to start talking about a Sprint Cup championship six-pack? According to Johnson, “Yes.”
“We are doing the things right now that will win one, but we need to do this in September and on,” Johnson said. “It’s nice to have the success right now because the last two years, we have been working very hard in a lot of areas, and when you have success … you narrow down your focus in where you need to be.
“Things are very good for our company. We know the areas where we found some raw speed, and now we are fine-tuning from there. So honestly, first of all, have to make the Chase. And I think two wins puts us in a very nice position.”
The summer months are traditionally when Johnson and Co. start perfecting their title-running package. And if Charlotte and Dover are any indication of what the competition can expect in two of the final 10 races in the Chase, the other 11 teams better bring their A-games to the track each week.
“We need to keep the pressure on and roll into September with the same thing going on in order to win a championship,” Johnson said, pointing to the 2011 battle for the title. "When you look at what Tony (Stewart) and Carl (Edwards) went through last year, that’s a perfect example. You just don’t show up and think everything is going to turn out as you hoped. You have to get in there and race hard for all 10 races.”
Harvick hones in
Kevin Harvick was expected to be a top contender when he entered the 2012 season, but the spark had been missing over the past month.
But Harvick, who qualified sixth — his best starting position at this track since 2006 — exhibited great resolve Sunday, particularly after he overshot his pits during the round of stops on Lap 228. Harvick restarted 18th on Lap 231 but never gave up the fight. By the next caution on Lap 341, Harvick had recovered to sixth place in the running order. Then he gained two more positions when Kurt Busch’s engine blew to trigger the sixth caution on Lap 347.
On that restart, Harvick went from fourth to second on the restart and maintained the runner-up spot to the finish for his best showing since he was second at Phoenix International Raceway in March.
“We had a solid race,” Harvick said. “I made a mistake on pit road there and got us back to about 20th. The car was good enough to be able to drive back through the pack, and for whatever reason, we were able to adjust our car well today when we needed to, and we were able to keep up with the racetrack and keep our car better through the day.
“I think that was a big key to getting through the traffic and putting ourselves back in position to at least have a chance.”
Harvick remained seventh in the points standings, but trails sixth-place Martin Truex Jr. by just one point.
Three of NASCAR’s perennial contenders experienced difficulties Sunday.
Tony Stewart was the first victim when he triggered a 12-car wreck after contact with Landon Cassill on Lap 9. After NASCAR red-flagged the race for nearly 20 minutes, Stewart was able to return to action on Lap 73, 64 laps off the pace. Stewart entered the weekend ninth in the points standings. Despite finishing 25th, he moved up to eighth in the points standings after Kyle Busch’s engine failure on Lap 203 took him out of the race.
Carl Edwards was the second Chase regular to encounter misfortune when his right-front tire went flat and the No. 99 Ford slammed into the wall coming off of Turn 2 on Lap 164 while running fifth. Edwards returned to the track on Lap 244. Edwards nursed the No. 99 Ford to a 26th-place finish, 82 laps off the lead lap. Edwards dropped from 10th to 12th in the points standings — and out of the Chase Zone.
Kyle Busch suffered his first DNF of the season when the engine expired in the No. 18 Toyota. The failure was also the first of the season for Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch described the failure as “catastrophic.” For Busch, the 29th-place finish was his worst since he finished 36th at Martinsville in April.
3: Engine failures by Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton
7: Victories for Jimmie Johnson at Dover — tying Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for most all-time at the track
18: Top-10 finishes for Matt Kenseth at Dover in 27 starts
30: Consecutive races without a victory by the polesitter — Mark Martin finished 14th.
When Joey Logano’s engine stalled during the fifth caution, he dropped to 15th in the field and shared this terse exchange with crew chief Jason Ratcliff.
“(Expletive) stupid, how does a motor not (expletive) run like that? … by itself, I didn’t touch a thing,” Logano said.
Ratcliff replied, “I don’t have an answer for that.”
“Damn piece of (crap),” Logano said. “That’s the answer.”
The Joe Gibbs racer recovered with a solid eighth-place finish, his third top-10 finish at Dover.