Sunday, September 26, 2010
Jimmie Johnson gains ground in Chase
DOVER, Del. -- Jimmie Johnson had it all. He won the pole, dominated again to win at Dover International Speedway, and even held his baby daughter in his arms in Victory Lane for the first time.
He called it a dream weekend.
Yet, it wasn't enough for the four-time Cup champion.
Not even close.
Johnson let the field know his bid for a fifth straight title is alive and thriving by winning the second race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship on Sunday for his sixth victory of the season. He won't be truly happy with the result until he's hoisting the series trophy and celebrating another championship after the finale.
"Yes, today was a big victory and hopefully a step toward the championship," Johnson said, "but it's not the prize we want."
Johnson has owned Dover the last two years, winning for the third time in four races on the mile concrete oval. He shook off a rare poor finish in last week's Chase opener at New Hampshire to turn the fastest qualifying lap, cruise to the checkered flag and shoot to second in the points standings.
Johnson has few better tracks to jump-start his championship run than Dover with six career wins and 12 top-10 finishes in 18 races. He was sensational in the No. 48 Chevrolet here in May until a rare pit road mistake put him in 16th place.
"There's a very unique rhythm to driving this track and it's just suited my style," Johnson said.
Chase drivers filled five of the top-six spots. Jeff Burton was second, Kurt Busch was fourth, Carl Edwards fifth and Kyle Busch sixth. Joey Logano spoiled the sweep with a second-place finish.
Burton said no one should ever count out Johnson.
"They're good," he said. "They're not good, they're great. That word is not being overused when I say that."
Denny Hamlin kept his points lead with a ninth-place finish. He holds a 35-point advantage over Johnson heading into next week's race at Kansas Speedway. The points leader after Dover has never gone on to win the championship since the Chase's inception in 2004.
"A lot of people are waiting for us to slip up like we have in the past, but I don't see it this time around," Hamlin said. "I just think our team is too focused at this point and we're running too well for that to happen. I think it's going to go all the way to the wire."
Hamlin is a strong favorite to thwart Johnson's drive for five. Hamlin's average finish at Dover was 22.8 in nine previous races -- only Daytona at 23.1 is a more troublesome spot for the Joe Gibbs Racing contender -- so Sunday was a positive sign for his title run over the final eight races of the season.
His points lead is the largest for any driver after the second Chase race.
"The original goal was to be 80 points back after Kansas," he said. "Well, that goal has been shifted now."
Hamlin had an active weekend. First, he blasted Clint Bowyer's explanation for driving an illegal car in his New Hampshire victory. Then, he was bumped by Kevin Harvick, Bowyer's teammate, in practice Saturday and the two got into a screaming match in the garage.
Hamlin considered the issue over.
Dover lacked the drama of last week's opener when Tony Stewart lost a big gamble and ran out of fuel right before the white flag lap, allowing Bowyer to zip past for the win. Bowyer's celebration was short-lived after he flunked a follow-up inspection last week and was docked 150 points. His rough stretch continued with a 25th-place finish and -- unless he can win Wednesday's appeal -- his championship hopes are all but dashed.
Bowyer's car was again taken by NASCAR back to its North Carolina research and development center for a more thorough examination. No car failed Sunday's postrace inspection.
Chase drivers were scattered throughout the results. Jeff Gordon was 11th, and Harvick 15th. Matt Kenseth battled a cut tire to finish 18th and Greg Biffle was 19th. Stewart was 21st.
Title hopes are grim for Stewart (10th place, 162 points out) and Kenseth (11th place, 165 points out).
Johnson finished 25th last Sunday at New Hampshire. It was the worst showing for any driver in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship and dumped him from second to seventh in points.
This time, Johnson led a race-high 191 laps and was greeted by smiling owner Rick Hendrick in Victory Lane.
"Last week didn't turn out like we wanted," Johnson said. "I don't look all that excited right now but there's a huge weight off my shoulders that we were able to come and win a race in the Chase, rebound from last weekend and we're in the middle of this thing and we're really, really excited."