September 29, 2012 | By Bruce Martin
Johnson Could Pad Chase Lead With Another Victory At 'Monster Mile'
After Denny Hamlin delivered his “called shot” by guaranteeing victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and delivering on that promise in Babe Ruth fashion, it’s off to Dover Downs International Raceway for Round 3 of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
And with a Chase field heavy with “Brickyard Legends” – drivers who have won the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – look who is on top of the standings after just two races. It’s none other than four-time Brickyard winner and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson, the winner of this year’s Crown Royal Presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard powered by BigMachineRecords.com is attempting to prove that not winning the title in last year’s Chase was a fluke. It’s the only time since 2005 that Johnson has not won the Sprint Cup title, and he is pursuing his sixth Sprint Cup title with a vengeance.
With four wins in the last eight Dover races, there is reason to keep an eye on Johnson in Sunday’s race.
“We’re definitely excited to be here at this racetrack,” Johnson said Friday. “The stats are very good for myself and this team here. It’s a track that I’ve enjoyed racing at from the very first lap here in an ASA car. So I’m glad to be here. I’m very happy with the start that we’ve had to the (Chase) season. Chicago went really well for us and then obviously last week at Loudon to run second there was a strong showing, as well. So things are working well. Clearly, there are eight more races to go, and we’ll just keep working hard and see what we can do.”
Although Johnson’s lead in the standings is just one point over Penske Racing’s Brad Keselowski and seven over NASCAR’s version of the “Sultan of Swat” – Denny Hamlin, his success at Dover is quite impressive, which makes him a strong favorite for the 400-mile contest Sunday on the concrete 1-mile oval.
He has driven the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet to Victory Lane in one-third of the Dover races he has started. He swept both Dover contests in his rookie season of 2002 and has seven wins, 10 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes in 21 starts. He finished second to Kurt Busch in this race last year and drove to victory here in the most recent battle June 3.
“I think out of all the oval tracks we race on, this one is most similar to my off-road background,” Johnson said of his secret to success. “The drop-off into the corner, the way the rubber lays down and you have to select a different line through the turn, kind of reminds me of dirt racing. And then you climb back up that hill and jump onto the straightaway and then go do it again and again and again. I think that’s really where things work the best for me.
“The intensity you have to drive that track (Dover) with. It really fits my style. It’s the closest track we have to being airborne each lap with the drop off into turns 1 and 3. It’s just cool you’ve got to bring your big boy pants every lap there, and I love it.”
While the numbers add up for Johnson, one statistic that doesn’t is no driver leading the points after Dover has gone on to win the Cup title.
Johnson is not concerned.
“No, there’s not much to it,” Johnson said. “I think the point in that it that it’s a long season, and a lot can happen. But you want every point you can get, and leading now is a great position to be in. I think any champion of the Chase would take leading out of Dover.
“I think we all look at other drivers and where they excel. You know that you’re going to have to deal with that team and driver, and last week was a good example of it. We all knew, going in based on the spring race (New Hampshire) that Denny (Hamlin) was going to be the car to beat at New Hampshire, and they did that. So we all look through stats and I’m not sure that a long history plays into things, but certainly a spring race is one that you pay attention to.”
Although Keselowski and Hamlin have yet to achieve success at the Brickyard and haven’t achieved the “Brickyard Legend” status, one driver who fits that category is Tony Stewart of Columbus, Ind.
Stewart is fourth in the standings, 10 points behind Johnson. “Smoke” swept both races at Dover in 2000 but hasn’t been back to Victory Lane in Delaware since. Those two wins are included in his 10 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes in 27 starts at the Monster Mile.
“It is definitely one that we were concerned about, and we have been concerned about this race for the last three or four years,” Stewart said Friday. “We are not exactly where we need to be today, but we are a lot better off than we have been here in the past. I’m at least excited about it. I don’t feel like I have to hold my breath every lap now.
“Dover is a track that is kind of a two-phase deal. It’s easy to get your car too tight in the center (of the corner) trying to get it to drive up off the corner nice, and it seems like if you get it to rotate through the corner, then it’s way loose off. Those are the two things that you really battle there. It’s the sacrifice of where do you want to be a little bit off to accomplish having a balanced car.”
Two of the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers in the Chase have yet to race to victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but have their own strong ties to the “World’s Greatest Race Course” and the city of Indianapolis. Those are former United States Auto Club (USAC) star Kasey Kahne, who is fifth in the standings 15 behind teammate Johnson and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr., seventh in the standings, 26 out of the lead.
“I’ve always liked going to Dover,” Kahne said. “It’s a tough track, and you carry a lot of speed into the corners. We did really well here last fall and worked hard for a top-10 in the spring. The team has a lot of consistency right now, and we all want to keep that up.”
Kahne is attempting to win at Dover for the first time and has one top-five and five top-10 finishes in 17 starts. He was fourth last September and ninth in June.
Earnhardt has one win, five top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 25 Dover starts. He was 24th in this race last year and fourth back in June.
“Getting into Turn 3 can be difficult,” Earnhardt said. “There are some bumps that the rear tires sort of skate across. It can be a challenge to get the car to turn in the middle of the corner. Cars kind of slide the back tires getting in the corner, and then they kind of push through the center at both ends of the racetrack. That really doesn’t show up until race time.
“We definitely had a frustrating week this past race at New Hampshire. We salvaged a decent finish considering how frustrating it was and how the car actually was performing throughout the day. That gives me a little bit of confidence that even if things aren't going quite well, we can still get a decent enough run to keep ourselves in the hunt. I feel like we're still in the hunt. Obviously there are some teams that are showing strength over the last couple weeks. But we're not giving up. There's a lot of racing left, a lot of adversity these guys have got to go through. Hopefully we can maximize these eight remaining races, capitalize on some unfortunate things happening to some other teams, and put ourselves back in the hunt.
“This thing can turn around in a week or two, and we could be right back up in the middle of the battle up front. We just got to keep working hard to give ourselves that opportunity if that opportunity arises.”
2003 Brickyard 400 winner Kevin Harvick is eighth in the standings, 31 behind Johnson. At Dover, he has no wins, three top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 23 starts. He was 10th in this race last year and second in June.
“Dover is one of those places as a driver that feels really fast,” Harvick said. “With these kinds of cars, it seems like the forward drive off the corner is the most important thing, but you still have to make your car turn in the center of the corner. As a driver, the car has to be comfortable to be really aggressive. It’s just a fine balance for everything.”
Four-time Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon remains stuck in the 12th and last Chase position, 45 points out of the lead. Four-time Cup champion Gordon, who spent his formative racing years living in Pittsboro, Ind., cannot afford another bad race if he hopes to remain relevant in this year’s championship battle.
“The strategy and thought process doesn’t change,” Gordon said. “We go out to win races, and we can’t control what any of our competitors do. It’s important for us to be aggressive and put pressure on them by being up front and running good. Right now we are not really on anybody’s radar. They know we run good and know we can win races and yet, they know we are really far back in points. So right now it’s all on us to go do what we are capable of doing.”
Gordon has four wins, 14 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes in 39 Dover starts. He was 12th last September and 13th in June.
“I’m excited about being here, but we haven’t been as strong as I have been in the past here at Dover until this last race here,” Gordon said. “We really made some great improvements on the car, and this tire suits my driving style and it’s kind of got us back to old Dover. I was having a lot of fun here last time, and I think that has given us a lot of confidence for this weekend to step it up and have a good finish.”
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