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Dover do-over for Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson is seeking revenge at the Monster Mile.
The last time the five-time champion raced at Dover, in June, he led 143 of the first 377 laps and appeared destined to earn his eighth victory at the track.
But when it came to the seventh and final restart, Johnson, who was second at the time, jumped ahead of then-leader Juan Pablo Montoya and was black-flagged by NASCAR for beating the control car to the line. Johnson dropped to 17th, one lap off the pace, where he finished the race.
NASCAR has since clarified the restart rules. At Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago, NASCAR VP of competition Robin Pemberton explained that the leader will control the start in the restart zone. However, once the green flag waves, second-place can outrun the leader to the start-finish line. Pemberton said the move will put restarts “back in the hands of the competitors,” as well as “take out on area of subjectivity on our part.”
When the tour returned to Dover this weekend, Johnson displayed his typical Dover swagger. He qualified eighth on Friday, posted the sixth-fastest lap in Saturday's morning practice and the best 10-consecutive-lap average (154.888 mph).
And with NASCAR clarifying the restart rule, Johnson should know exactly what to expect when it comes to officiating. Johnson joked that his Dover mishap — and others — “helped shape the rule that we have now.”
“Oh, yeah, it definitely had a role in that,” Johnson said. “I think it was three or four restarts I was a part of that. I think it’s a good fix. I think it’s a good compromise between protecting second on a lot of these mile-and-a-halfs where we have an apron that drivers can shoot down onto and make a pass.
“I think it’s protecting second place from that situation. At other race tracks ... what happened to me here, where the leader doesn’t go, it takes that away from the leader. So I think it’s good. I think it’s a good compromise for what the drivers and the front row have to manage.
"I’m glad that it’s in place. I hate that it took so long, but I think it’s a good change.”
What Johnson can’t control — at least for the moment — is the dominance of the Joe Gibbs Racing teams of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch that sit first and second, respectively, in the point standings. Johnson has figured prominently in the Chase picture for seven of the last eight seasons but currently sits third and trails Kenseth by 18 points.
“We have known for years and years and years that they are a strong organization,” Johnson said of JGR. “When you peak is very important in our season, and I think that the No. 20 and the No. 18 are really coming to the top of their game right now at this point of the year, which is good for them. Arguably, and there is still racing left so I hope this is wrong, but so far our peak was probably about the [one-] third mark of the year, [one-] third to three-eighths mark of the year.
“I feel like we are trending back up with our two top-fives and heading in the right direction, but time will tell how high we rise and where we get to. They have always had good equipment and they have always had fast cars. I really feel like Matt (Kenseth) and the relationship that he and his crew chief have and what they have been able to bring to the table has helped elevate them to ... the next level. The experience that Matt brings in — the smarts, the knowledge, the consistent driving — that is a nice kind of rock within that organization that without a doubt has helped them.”
Johnson is realistic to take the Chase one race at a time. In June, Kenseth had led 29 laps and was at the point when his engine expired. He finished 40th. Then again, Kenseth also has two wins at Dover and will start from the second row.
Kyle Busch, who qualified 14th, also has two wins at the track — and just a four-point advantage over his former Hendrick teammate Johnson. Having worked together in the past, Johnson is well aware that Busch “has the ability.”
“We’ve all seen it week in and week out,” Johnson said. “We’ll see if he can keep it together over the course of 10 weeks. We all have something out there that media, fans, and competitors hold against you and make you think about from time to time and they always bring up a question. His question is, can you hold it together for 10 weeks? And we’ll see.
“I believe that he has the ability to do it. He’s shown at different points in time, he wins in anything and everything he drives at all types of tracks. So, it’s in there. It’s just finding it; and finding it at the right time amongst all the pressure that it put on a team and driver in the Chase. But, he’s definitely on his game this year.”
Clint Bowyer treated fans to his yoga debut on Saturday in the infield grass at Dover.
Prior to taking to the mat, Bowyer tweeted: "Ok, I'm gonna go ahead and forfeit my man card now...This is going to happen!!!"
And his impression of yoga afterward: "Very difficult to get that comfortable while stretching certain regions without breaking a little wind."
156.338 mph — Fastest lap on the speed chart, set by defending AAA 400 winner Brad Keselowski.
23 — Nationwide Series poles won by 23-year-old Joey Logano. His third Dover pole came in his 123rd career NNS attempt. Logano went on to win his fourth consecutive Nationwide Series race at Dover — a track record — and his 21st career victory on that tour. (Note: Logano's No. 22 Ford failed postrace inspection. The car was found to be too low on both sides of the front end.)
Kyle Larson improved on his 10th-place showing in his Dover debut with a second-place finish on Saturday. Did Lady Luck follow him from the Dover Downs poker tables on Friday?
“I’m just now 21,” said Larson, who came of age on July 31. “I sat next to Brad Sweet, who won $10,000 in there last year. He was giving me some pointers. I was losing next to him 'cause you can’t hang out with Brad and Kasey (Kahne) and expect to do good because they throw out a lot more money than me. I ended up walking out without about $600 after they all left.”
Larson will test a Sprint Cup car on Tuesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway in preparation for the Oct. 12 race. Larson said his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray will be there to offer pointers.