NASCAR: Round 13 – Autism Speaks 400, Dover International – May 31

Jimmie Johnson dominated today’s Dover race, leading almost three quarters of the race. But in the past, the longtime leader has rarely been triumphant on the all-important final lap – so would Johnson buck the trend and pull it off?

Dover is a tight one mile oval, with a pit road so short that the 43rd pit box has only just finally been squeezed in following recent upgrades. It feels claustrophobic and has something of the sense of a Roman gladiators’ arena with its distinctive concrete surface waiting to shred the tyres of the unwary. With banking up to 24 degrees, the “Monster Mile” is not for the fainthearted!

David Reutimann didn’t lead at the start of the race, being overtaken on the first lap by Juan Montoya, but he regained the front spot on lap 6 and kept it almost to the first caution (a competition yellow thrown by NASCAR to allow teams to assess the state of play after the track had been washed clean by an early morning shower.) Just before the yellow came out, Reutimann got a little loose which allowed Reed Sorenson and Greg Biffle to get past.

After the yellows it was Greg Biffle in control, until Tony Raines brought out the next caution on lap 44 when his right front tyre exploded and took large chunks of bodywork with it, leaving debris on the track than needed clearing up. Tyre wear had been a conspicuous problem in the Truck series, and Raines had brought it upon himself by opting not to pit under the competition caution.

Surprisingly, then, the top 15 cars stayed out under this latest caution and Biffle led Jimmie Johnson, Reutimann, and Kurt and Kyle Busch at the restart. Biffle was finding the pace a little too fierce for so early in the race, and allowed Johnson to slip the 48 into the lead soon after. Kyle, meanwhile, was complaining about the 18 cars’ handling and started slipping back down the field alarmingly and out of the top ten.

The next yellow came on lap 116 in the middle of green flag pit stops; the caution was for debris in turn 2 resulting from John Andretti’s heavy contact with the wall a few laps earlier that didn’t itself bring out a yellow.

Johnson continued to lead until the next yellow on lap 163 when Juan Montoya blew his right-front tyre down the straightaway scattering debris on the track. He was complaining of loose handling and got some adjustments made, but still emerged from the pits in the lead followed by Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Mark Martin. Polesitter David Reutimann was the most relieved driver with the caution – he was a lap down at this point, and got the free pass.

Kyle Busch had recovered after his early woes, but handling changed under this latest pit stop had undone all the good work and he was complaining of no air pressure on the right hand side, sending him falling backwards again, passed by Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (much better this weekend with a cool, calm, professional new pit chief) and Matt Kenseth. For the second time today he plummeted out of the top ten and kept falling off the lead lap on lap 230.

Fortunately for Kyle, the yellow came out on lap 231 – for second-placed Denny Hamlin, whose right front tyre suddenly let go sending him shooting up the track into a hard clout against the wall. Heartbreak for Hamlin, but a lucky dog free pass for Kyle and moreover a chance to return to pit lane and try and fix the evil handling on the car.

Johnson was still leading the race, seemingly effortlessly, after the pit stops ahead of Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart. In the next forty lap stint under green, Kyle was busy working his way up in the much-improved number 18 and was back in 9th by th time the yellow came out on lap 276 for debris on the front stretch; Jamie McMurray was mighty relieved to catch the free pass, putting twenty cars on the leap lap at this point.

For once, Johnson didn’t win the race off pit road and conceded the lead to Matt Kenseth, ahead of Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle. Johnson had just retaken the lead again when David Stremme got loose on lap 285 coming off turn 2 and sent Robby Gordon and Paul Menard into a crunching impact with the inside wall. Gordon’s car was worst hit, while Stremme was lucky in saving his own car and not hitting the wall at all despite starting the incident.

With so little time elapsed since the last yellow there were few takers for the pits, although Dale Earnhardt Jr. was among those pitting for four tyres. Johnson led Kenseth, Martin, Kurt, Edwards and Biffle at the restart. But Kenseth had a poor period, dropping to 6th place before the next caution on lap 330 (for debris on the track); by contrast things couldn’t be better for Johnson who has stretched out a 9s lead before the yellows came out.

With this looking like the critical pit stop, there was no way Johnson was going to allow someone out ahead of him, and sure enough he led the field to the restart ahead of Biffle, Kurt Busch, Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth who just emerged ahead of Kyle Busch in 6th to recover one of the positions he had just lost under green. He quickly made up another on track by overtaking Biffle, showing that his handling woes had been taken care of and he was back in the hunt.

But Kyle Busch’s recovery attempt came to an end on lap 342 when he had to pit from 6th place reporting vibrations, putting him off the lead lap for good this time. Initially they believed it was a loose wheel, but a tyre change made no impact and instead it seemed like the splitter was disconnected from the car near the middle of the front bumper, requiring yet another costly green flag stop that well and truly finished off his chances in what had been, frankly, a dire weekend for him.

Kyle’s brother Kurt was having much better luck, easing into second to start chasing down Johnson. That effort was interrupted on lap 363 by the 9th caution – the 6th for debris – with 37 laps to go. Now everyone had to decide whether to stay out for track positin or pit for new rubber – in which case, two or four tyres?

Kurt took four and restarted from 5th behind Biffle, Stewart, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne. Johnson also opted for four tyres but was dropped to 9th in the process.

The restart lasted a bare lap before the yellows came out again, after Stremme got loose off turn 4 and headed into a extended skidding contact with the inside wall in something of delayed karma for his role in the lap 285 yellow that wrote off Robby Gordon. The field did incredibly well to avoid Stremme as he bounced back up the track and into the outside wall, although David Reutimann spun taking avoiding action.

Now the race was good to the end – no more cautions after the restart on lap 373. And it was clear that the new tyres weren’t suiting Kurt as well as the old ones, and he made no headway at all in the final laps. Not so for Jimmie Johnson, who ploughed through the field inexorably until only Biffle and Stewart remained. Stewart sensed the danger and passed Biffle for the lead on lap 391, and did everything he could to hold off Johnson. But it was no good, the number 48 was the class of the field this afternoon and with fresh rubber added to the equation it was only a matter of time before Johnson finally pulled off the move. It happened on lap 398, and two laps later Johnson cruised past the chequered flag to claim his 42nd career win in NASCAR.

Race result

FIN ST  CAR DRIVER             MAKE       PTS/BNS  LAPS  STATUS
1   8   48  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  195/10   400  Running
2   31  14  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  175/5    400  Running
3   5   16  Greg Biffle        Ford       170/5    400  Running
4   14  17  Matt Kenseth       Ford       165/5    400  Running
5   19  2   Kurt Busch         Dodge      155/0    400  Running
6   2   9   Kasey Kahne        Dodge      150/0    400  Running
7   13  99  Carl Edwards       Ford       151/5    400  Running
8   11  39  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  142/0    400  Running
9   17  07  Casey Mears        Chevrolet  138/0    400  Running
10  28  5   Mark Martin        Chevrolet  139/5    400  Running
11  25  33  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  130/0    400  Running
12  22  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet  127/0    400  Running
13  12  77  Sam Hornish Jr.    Dodge      124/0    400  Running
14  18  26  Jamie McMurray     Ford       121/0    400  Running
15  21  20  Joey Logano *      Toyota     118/0    400  Running
16  32  31  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  115/0    400  Running
17  35  29  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  112/0    400  Running
18  1   00  David Reutimann    Toyota     114/5    400  Running
19  4   43  Reed Sorenson      Dodge      111/5    400  Running
20  20  47  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     103/0    400  Running
21  15  1   Martin Truex Jr.   Chevrolet  100/0    400  Running
22  33  78  Regan Smith        Chevrolet  97/0     400  Running
23  6   18  Kyle Busch         Toyota     94/0     400  Running
24  26  6   David Ragan        Ford       91/0     400  Running
25  9   83  Brian Vickers      Toyota     88/0     400  Running
26  42  24  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  85/0     398  Running
27  10  19  Elliott Sadler     Dodge      87/5     398  Running
28  27  96  Bobby Labonte      Ford       79/0     397  Running
29  7   44  A.J. Allmendinger  Dodge      76/0     396  Running
30  3   42  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  78/5     395  Running
31  30  12  David Stremme      Dodge      70/0     370  In Pit
32  36  98  Paul Menard        Ford       67/0     363  Running
33  40  7   Robby Gordon       Toyota     64/0     282  Running
34  43  34  John Andretti      Chevrolet  61/0     253  In Pit
35  29  55  Michael Waltrip    Toyota     58/0     250  Out of Race
36  16  11  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     55/0     232  In Pit
37  23  82  Scott Speed *      Toyota     52/0     118  Out of Race
38  38  187 Joe Nemechek       Toyota     49/0     67   In Pit
39  39  66  Dave Blaney        Toyota     46/0     66   In Pit
40  37  09  Mike Bliss         Dodge      43/0     56   Out of Race
41  34  36  Mike Skinner       Toyota     40/0     51   Out of Race
42  41  37  Tony Raines        Chevrolet  37/0     42   In Pit
43  24  171 David Gilliland    Chevrolet  39/5     38   In Pit 

Championship standings

RANK    +/-     DRIVER      PTS     BEHIND  STS P   W   T5  T10
1   +1  Tony Stewart        1853    Leader  13  0   0   6   9
2   -1  Jeff Gordon         1807    -46     13  0   1   6   8
3   +1  Jimmie Johnson      1789    -64     13  0   2   6   8
4   -1  Kurt Busch          1762    -91     13  0   1   4   7
5   +2  Ryan Newman         1680    -173    13  1   0   4   7
6   --  Kyle Busch          1634    -219    13  1   3   4   5
7   -2  Denny Hamlin        1630    -223    13  0   0   2   4
8   +1  Matt Kenseth        1625    -228    13  1   2   4   6
9   +1  Greg Biffle         1618    -235    13  0   0   4   7
10  -2  Jeff Burton         1587    -266    13  0   0   2   5
11  --  Carl Edwards        1582    -271    13  0   0   2   6
12  --  Mark Martin         1567    -286    13  3   2   3   7
====== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS ========
13  --  David Reutimann     1536    -317    13  2   1   2   3
14  +1  Kasey Kahne         1501    -352    13  0   0   1   4
15  -1  Juan Montoya        1475    -378    13  1   0   0   4
16  +1  Clint Bowyer        1449    -404    13  0   0   3   4
17  -1  Brian Vickers       1436    -417    13  2   0   2   5
18  +1  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  1352    -501    13  0   0   1   3
19  -1  Martin Truex Jr.    1338    -515    13  1   0   0   3
20  --  Marcos Ambrose      1319    -534    13  0   0   1   2
21  +1  Casey Mears         1306    -547    13  0   0   0   2
22  -1  Jamie McMurray      1289    -564    13  0   0   0   3
23  +2  Joey Logano*        1263    -590    13  0   0   0   3
24  -1  Kevin Harvick       1261    -592    13  0   0   2   2
25  -1  Reed Sorenson       1259    -594    13  0   0   0   1
26  +4  Sam Hornish Jr.     1237    -616    13  0   0   0   2
27  +1  Elliott Sadler      1216    -637    13  0   0   1   1
28  -1  Bobby Labonte       1213    -640    13  0   0   1   1
29  -3  David Stremme       1206    -647    13  0   0   0   0
30  -1  A.J. Allmendinger   1202    -651    13  0   0   1   2
31  +1  David Ragan         1180    -673    13  0   0   0   1
32  -1  Michael Waltrip     1153    -700    13  0   0   0   1
33  --  Paul Menard         1100    -753    13  0   0   0   0
34  --  Robby Gordon        1031    -822    13  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*         917    -936    12  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti        804    -1049   11  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland      770    -1083   12  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith          670    -1183   7   0   0   0   0
39  +1  Joe Nemechek         515    -1338   10  0   0   0   0
40  -1  Brad Keselowski      479    -1374   4   0   1   1   2
41  --  Aric Almirola        451    -1402   7   0   0   0   0
42  --  Scott Riggs          448    -1405   8   0   0   0   0
43  --  Dave Blaney          428    -1425   10  0   0   0   0
44  --  Bill Elliott         346    -1507   4   0   0   0   0
45  --  Max Papis*           317    -1536   5   0   0   0   0
46  --  Travis Kvapil        292    -1561   4   0   0   0   0
47  --  Jeremy Mayfield      288    -1565   5   0   0   0   0
48  --  Tony Raines          205    -1648   5   0   0   0   0
49  --  Mike Bliss           200    -1653   5   0   0   0   0
50  --  Todd Bodine          123    -1730   3   0   0   0   0
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