Commentary

Jimmie Johnson serves notice

Updated: September 29, 2013, 8:39 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

DOVER, Del. -- It began as the perfect day with chamber of commerce weather and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the pole, as Dover International Speedway president Denis McGlynn reminded everyone in the drivers' meeting on Sunday.

The weather held up.

Earnhardt didn't.

With all the drama and controversy NASCAR faced coming into the Chase, a win by its most popular driver might have erased some of the negativity surrounding the sport.

What ill feelings remained over Clint Bowyer's controversial spinout at Richmond would have been drowned out by shouts of "Juun-yahhh! Juun-yahhh!"

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsJimmie Johnson now sits second in the Chase standings, eight points behind Matt Kenseth.

As Earnhardt said after finishing second to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, "We were going to have a helluva party if we could get to him."

Instead, it was a replay of a movie we've all seen many times.

Nothing against Johnson for adding a record eighth Dover victory to his Hall of Fame résumé, breaking a tie with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison. Holding off Earnhardt over the final 26 laps while he had four fresh tires and Johnson had only two just adds to his legacy.

Johnson will probably go on to win a sixth championship, considering he did the last two times he won the Dover Chase race in 2009 and 2010.

But this was a day the sport could have used an Earnhardt win.

It was a day Earnhardt could have used a win.

"Felt like we had the perfect strategy," a disappointed Earnhardt said. "We had maybe the fastest car, arguably the best car. With those four tires I thought we could get it done. We left everybody in the mirror. We were clicking off some laps, but just not fast enough to get to Jimmie."

Earnhardt didn't help matters by missing the entrance to pit road while dominating during a green-flag stop on Lap 116 of the 400-mile race. The time he lost dropped him to fourth when stops cycled around.

Johnson was first.

Johnson remained first for most of the rest of the day, taking advantage of the almighty clean air to lead 243 of the final 280 laps. That one mistake, Earnhardt believes, "was a big factor in us not finishing one spot ahead of where we were."

In Victory Lane.

Where Johnson celebrated for the 65th time in his career.

So now NASCAR Nation's biggest fear could come true: Johnson could go on to win another title.

If there was any debate over whether the Chase was a three-man race before Sunday, there's not now. Johnson's win moved him within eight points of Matt Kenseth, who finished seventh.

Kyle Busch, who finished fifth, is 12 back.

The rest of the field, beginning with Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon tied for fourth, is at least 39 points back. That string of the championship winner coming from the top three in the standings after two Chase races apparently will stay intact.

If anything, this Chase seems to set up perfectly for Johnson based on history. He already has finished fifth, fourth and first, apparently recapturing the momentum that helped him build a 77-point lead on the field before a late regular-season swoon.

He doesn't have a bad track ahead outside of Talladega, where something bad could happen to anybody.

You kind of sensed Johnson was confident about his championship chances when he started teasing Kenseth on Twitter after the Joe Gibbs Racing driver won the first two Chase races.

He even said on Friday he had only two drivers -- Kenseth and Busch -- in his sights. He spent much of Sunday talking about one.

"I think it's going to be fun for the fans to watch," Johnson said of the rest of the Chase. "We came to a good track and we got what we needed to [get] done. I know that [Kenseth] is going to be awfully strong for the rest of the stretch and I look forward to racing with him."

You can hear the 48 haters resurfacing already. That Johnson denied Earnhardt the victory on this day might even add to that club of those in denial that they are witnessing one of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport.

"It doesn't matter," Johnson said with a laugh. "I piss them off anyway."

True.

But Johnson's talent can't be denied, which is why Earnhardt has nothing to be ashamed of. As crew chief Chad Knaus said, "Jimmie is the most underrated champion we have in this industry. He is one of the most powerful champions of the last 25 years in this sport."

He was practically unstoppable on this day after Earnhardt made the mistake on pit road.

"To lose track position like that, it without a doubt affected his day," Johnson said.

But as big as a win for Earnhardt would have been for the sport, a victory was equally important for Johnson in his attempt to catch and maybe one day surpass Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most career titles with seven.

You have to take advantage of tracks where you're good to win titles, and there's nobody better at Dover than Johnson. He spent more time thinking about how tough Kenseth and Busch will be over the next seven weeks than how mad some will get that he beat Earnhardt.

"They're bringing their best and doing their best," said Johnson, who believes he had a car that could have won the first two Chase races with a little luck. "You've got to deliver. That was my mindset when racing with those guys most of the race."

And in the end he delivered by beating Earnhardt and spoiling what McGlynn surely would have called the "perfect day."

But at least Earnhardt can take solace in that he pushed Johnson to the limit.

"I ran my guts off to stay ahead of him," Johnson said. "Anything I could twist, turn, pull, push, I did. Then just drove the s--- out of that thing."

And that made for a perfect day for Johnson.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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