NASCAR: Round 28 – AAA 400, Dover International, DE – 27 September

Jimmie Johnson took pole for the second Chase race (with some mutterings from one or two other drivers that he enjoyed an unfair advantage by being able to participate in a Goodyear test last month here at Dover – the so-called “Monster Mile”. But could he turn that advantage – fair or otherwise – to a much-needed race victory to get his 2009 Chase campaign properly launched?

As Johnson led the start away and opened up a 1.2 second lead over Ryan Newman (and Elliott Sadler, Clint Bowyer and Tony Raines were all put to the back for engine changes) news came that there would be a competition yellow at lap 25, after the racetrack was washed clean of the rubber that had been put down so far this weekend by heavy overnight rain.

The competition caution was reached without incident, and the cars dutifully filed in for the first pit stop to check on tyre wear; several of the leaders opted to take just two new tyres, but Jimmie Johnson went for the full four and dropped to 5th at the restart behind Newman, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard.

But the calm was deceptive and didn’t survive the first-ever double-file restart at Dover: a big crash in turn 3 on lap 31 saw Joey Logano bumping with Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte that sent Logano sideways skating onto the grass and then back up to the wall before finally getting a low-speed impact from Reed Sorenson who had run out of space. That final innocuous impact flipped Logano tumbling into a massively over-the-top multiple-roll down the track in a spectacular accident; Sorenson, Robby Gordon, Martin Truex Jr. were also badly damaged in the incident. With four cars stuck on the track, the stewards needed time to clear up the mess and make sure everyone was okay and immediately put out the red flag for a twenty minute hiatus. Happily, Joey Logano walked away unhurt – albeit admitting that it had “scared the heck out of me” and “the wildest ride ever been on!”

After this early excitement, it was good to get back to some nice, reliable, safe laps. Newman led the field away at the restart and retained the lead until lap 58, when Kurt Busch assumed the top spot as Newman gradually started to lose pace and positions.

The field was starting to get close to pit stops (and David Reutimann had already run out of gas and lost two laps while crawling into the pit lane) when the next caution came out on lap 4 for Michael Waltrip hitting the wall in turn 2 after his front-right tyre blew out. That allowed everyone to come in for pit stops under caution, and Kurt Busch kept the lead ahead of Greg Biffle, brother Kyle, Jimmie Johnson and Juan Montoya. Biffle, Johnson and Kyle had a heated battle for the second spot as the green came out and Biffle came out the worst for it, dropping to 8th by lap 125, while Kurt continued to lead ahead of Johnson, Montoya, Kyle, a rapidly improving Mark Martin (who had dropped to 18th on the initial laps) and Jeff Gordon in 6th despite complaints that the 24 was handling very loose.

It was only a matter of time before Johnson retook the lead, and it happened on lap 147 after Busch was blocked by Bobby Labonte getting lapped. By this point the race had gone almost 75 laps without a caution and pit stops were pending; Kyle Busch pitted on lap 162 after brushing the wall (and Jeff Burton managed to miss pit road on his own attempt to come in) when a yellow flag came out the very next lap for fluid on the track and the rest of the leaders got to pit under yellow.

The race off pit road put Kurt Busch back in the lead ahead of Johnson, Montoya, Gordon and Martin at the restart on lap 168. Johnson was immediately up for a fight for the lead, and he and Busch went side-by-side for several laps until Johnson proved his point and got the lead back on lap 176, quickly opening up a 1.4s lead over Kurt in a half dozen laps. Johnson held the lead through the midpoint of the race and up to the fifth caution of the night, triggered by Kyle Busch hiting the wall heavily twice, not for the first time this afternoon, in turns 3 and 4 – the second hit seemingly the result of throwing a tantrum out of sheer frustration.

At the restart, the top five continued to consist of Johnson, Gordon, Kurt Busch, Martin and Montoya. This time Johnson stretched out a 3.5s lead by the time the next round of pit stops started to loom and were neatly matched with the sixth caution of the evening on lap 272 courtesy of David Stremme hitting the wall this time, in turn 4. The top five at the restart continued to be the familiar names of Johnson, Gordon, Busch, Montoya and Martin as everyone bided their time.

This stint wasn’t so good for Kurt, however, who fell out of the top five and passed by Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart who were starting to get stronger as the race entered its final quarter. But Johnson was still effortlessly dominating the race upfront, leading by 2.2s when the seventh caution came out on lap 324 for debris, giving everyone the chance to pit under yellow for what should be the final time of the afternoon.

Johnson led Martin, Kenseth, Montoya and Stewart away at the green flag on lap 329 (Gordon having a poor stop, falling from second to seventh as a result) and it was Montoya who got the best start of that lead group, popping up into 2nd while Mark Martin struggled and fell back to 5th. The green flag conditions only lasted a dozen laps however before the eights caution arrived in the form of a spin by Ragan Smith on the frontstretch that collected David Stremme, Martin Truex Jr. and Elliott Sadler.

This gave the crew chiefs an interesting choice – whether to come in for fresher rubber for an edge in the concluding fifth laps. Jeff Gordon – who had fallen back to 7th – was the highest-placed of the drivers to pit, along with Marcos Ambrose, A.J. Allmendinger, Kevin Harvick and Brian Vickers.

Johnson led Montoya, Martin, Kenseth and Kurt Busch away at the restart on lap 347, with Gordon out of the top ten but quickly on the mark and cutting a swathe back to the front, but the gamble wasn’t paying off fast enough and he would finish back in 6th place by the chequered flag.

There was one more caution of the day to navigate – on lap 368 when San Hornish Jr spun on the straightaway – and the now-familiar line-up of Johnson, Kenseth, Montoya, Martin and Busch led the restart with Johnson and Kenseth quickly driving away from the rest of the field. But wily old Mark Martin wasn’t about to let them disappear and he set about reeling Kenseth back in, finally passing Kenseth for second on lap 383. Jimmie Johnson, however, was another matter and simply too strong for Martin to be able to do anything about.

The laps clicked down, and the chequered was out – sure enough for Johnson, who had looked in control throughout and never seriously threatened. He was followed in by Martin, Kenseth and Montoya. For once, the Monster Mile had avoided any big wrecks (Logano’s sensational barrel-rolling notwithstanding) and the Chase contenders came through the ever-dangerous Dover outing without any disasters.

Race results

FIN ST  CAR DRIVER              MAKE        PTS/BNS LAP STATUS
1   1   48  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   195/10  400 Running
2   14  5   Mark Martin         Chevrolet   170/0   400 Running
3   23  17  Matt Kenseth        Ford        165/0   400 Running
4   2   42  Juan Montoya        Chevrolet   160/0   400 Running
5   16  2   Kurt Busch          Dodge       160/5   400 Running
6   7   24  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   150/0   400 Running
7   19  44  A.J. Allmendinger   Dodge       146/0   400 Running
8   6   9   Kasey Kahne         Dodge       142/0   400 Running
9   22  14  Tony Stewart        Chevrolet   138/0   400 Running
10  3   39  Ryan Newman         Chevrolet   139/5   400 Running
11  30  99  Carl Edwards        Ford        130/0   400 Running
12  20  29  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   127/0   400 Running
13  4   16  Greg Biffle         Ford        124/0   400 Running
14  27  47  Marcos Ambrose      Toyota      121/0   400 Running
15  8   33  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   118/0   400 Running
16  28  31  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet   115/0   400 Running
17  29  07  Casey Mears         Chevrolet   112/0   400 Running
18  12  83  Brian Vickers       Toyota      109/0   400 Running
19  10  98  Paul Menard         Ford        106/0   400 Running
20  24  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet   103/0   399 Running
21  5   00  David Reutimann     Toyota      100/0   398 Running
22  13  11  Denny Hamlin        Toyota      97/0    398 Running
23  41  96  Bobby Labonte       Ford        94/0    398 Running
24  21  6   David Ragan         Ford        91/0    396 Running
25  39  82  Scott Speed *       Toyota      88/0    396 Running
26  9   77  Sam Hornish Jr.     Dodge       85/0    395 Running
27  37  34  John Andretti       Chevrolet   82/0    395 Running
28  25  26  Jamie McMurray      Ford        79/0    394 Running
29  17  12  David Stremme       Dodge       76/0    385 Running
30  34  19  Elliott Sadler      Dodge       73/0    353 Running
31  15  18  Kyle Busch          Toyota      70/0    342 Running
32  33  78  Regan Smith         Chevrolet   67/0    337 Accident
33  32  1   Martin Truex Jr.    Chevrolet   64/0    251 Accident
34  31  7   Robby Gordon        Toyota      61/0    181 Accident
35  26  43  Reed Sorenson       Dodge       58/0    170 Running
36  38  55  Michael Waltrip     Toyota      55/0    84  Accident
37  35  66  Dave Blaney         Toyota      52/0    76  Transmission
38  43  36  Michael McDowell    Toyota      49/0    74  Brakes
39  18  171 David Gilliland     Chevrolet   51/5    60  Electrical
40  36  09  Mike Bliss          Dodge       43/0    54  Vibration
41  40  187 Joe Nemechek        Toyota      40/0    51  Overheating
42  11  20  Joey Logano *       Toyota      37/0    30  Accident
43  42  37  Tony Raines         Dodge       34/0    13  Overheating
* Denotes Rookie

Sprint Cup standings

Martin, Johnson and Montoya cementing their positions as the top three in the standings and Kenseth replacing Kyle Busch as the “best of the rest” in 13th.

    +/- DRIVER              PTS       GAP   ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Mark Martin         5400            28  6   5   11  16
2   --  Jimmie Johnson      5390      -10   28  2   4   11  17
3   +1  Juan Montoya        5335      -65   28  2   0   4   14
4   +1  Kurt Busch          5325      -75   28  0   1   8   16
5   +1  Tony Stewart        5294     -106   28  0   3   13  19
6   -3  Denny Hamlin        5292     -108   28  0   2   10  15
7   --  Ryan Newman         5290     -110   28  1   0   5   14
8   +2  Jeff Gordon         5278     -122   28  0   1   12  19
9   --  Greg Biffle         5262     -138   28  0   0   8   13
10  -2  Brian Vickers       5249     -151   28  6   1   4   13
11  --  Carl Edwards        5247     -153   28  0   0   7   11
12  --  Kasey Kahne         5211     -189   28  0   2   5   11
CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS
13  +1  Matt Kenseth        3424    -1976   28  1   2   5   10
14  -1  Kyle Busch          3395    -2005   28  1   4   8   10
15  --  Clint Bowyer        3311    -2089   28  0   0   4   12
16  --  David Reutimann     3275    -2125   28  2   1   5   8
17  --  Marcos Ambrose      3059    -2341   28  0   0   4   7
18  --  Jeff Burton         2968    -2432   28  0   0   2   6
19  +1  Casey Mears         2875    -2525   28  0   0   0   3
20  -1  Joey Logano*        2842    -2558   28  0   1   1   5
21  +1  Kevin Harvick       2807    -2593   28  0   0   3   5
22  -1  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2789    -2611   28  0   0   2   5
23  --  Jamie McMurray      2752    -2648   28  0   0   0   3
24  +2  A.J. Allmendinger   2689    -2711   28  0   0   1   4
25  --  Elliott Sadler      2631    -2769   28  0   0   1   4
26  -2  Martin Truex Jr.    2625    -2775   28  2   0   0   3
27  --  Sam Hornish Jr.     2571    -2829   28  0   0   2   7
28  --  Reed Sorenson       2503    -2897   28  0   0   0   1
29  --  Bobby Labonte       2495    -2905   28  0   0   1   1
30  --  David Ragan         2469    -2931   28  0   0   0   1
31  --  David Stremme       2444    -2956   28  0   0   0   0
32  --  Paul Menard         2374    -3026   28  0   0   0   0
33  --  Robby Gordon        2167    -3233   27  0   0   1   1
34  --  Michael Waltrip     2155    -3245   26  0   0   0   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        2022    -3378   27  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       1957    -3443   26  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland     1524    -3876   25  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith         1181    -4219   14  0   0   0   0
39  --  Joe Nemechek        1062    -4338   23  0   0   0   0
40  --  Dave Blaney         1001    -4399   25  0   0   0   0
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