Updated: September 30, 2013, 1:36 PM ET

Jimmie Johnson Shows His Might At Dover

Sprint Cup: Five-Time just hitting his stride

By Brant James | ESPN.com

Jimmie Johnson on Sunday posted a record eighth win at Dover International Speedway, passing Richard Petty and Bobby Allison, but remained eight points off the pace in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. And Johnson is cognizant of points that have already eluded him.

Matt Kenseth finished seventh and didn't seem particularly enthused by just maintaining some sort of margin on Johnson, the five-time series champion. And Kenseth's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, felt pretty much the same about not finishing behind Kenseth for the first time this Chase.

All these mixed emotions and frets and laments underscore the homestretch feel the Chase has assumed just three races into NASCAR's 10-race playoff system. And even with all the perseverating among the breakaway three, their situation is preferable than for the other 10 title-eligibles. Beginning with Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon and Richard Childress Racing driver Kevin Harvick tied at fourth, no driver is closer than 39 points to Kenseth.

Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth
Tom Pennington/NASCAR/Getty ImagesChase leader Matt Kenseth filled Jimmie Johnson's rearview Sunday at Dover.

Though Johnson said the juncture has not been reached in the Chase to focus solely on whom he considers his direct competition, he admitted Sunday that he had begun considering the race in terms of his points impact measured against Kenseth and Busch. Both Gibbs drivers, he said, are "in it for the long haul."

"I was thinking about it when I was in the car," Johnson said. "My whole thought process was just how tough this championship's going to be. They're bringing their best and doing their best. You've got to deliver. That was my mindset when I was racing with both of those guys for three-quarters of the race."

Kenseth clearly measured his finish against Johnson and Busch, especially considering the way he and crew chief Jason Ratcliff labored to improve the No. 20 Toyota throughout the 400 laps.

"When you look up, it's everybody that finished in front of you. It's all cars that you're racing for points," he said. "Overall, for how bad I felt like we struggled with the car, that was a decent finish."

Busch considered his No. 18 Toyota "about a fifth- to seventh-place car much of the day and we ended up fifth," adding "it's frustrating to be fifth, but yet you look at the grand scheme of things and it's three straight top-5s to start the Chase, so not bad."

He enters the fourth Chase race at Kansas Speedway 12 points behind Kenseth.

Ceding six points to Johnson at a track where Kenseth has two wins and 13 top-5s -- even though Johnson passed two Hall of Fame drivers on the track's all-time win list (in roughly half the races) -- might have burned the house money Kenseth banked with a surprise win at Loudon, N.H., where he had been admittedly middling. Getting through Dover as the points leader for the third straight week didn't seem like a consolation.

"If we would have won I would say that, but no, not really," Kenseth said. "I mean, I feel like it's one of our best racetracks and you want to do better than seventh at one of your best tracks, and now that all the guys you're racing beat you. Overall, it was a solid day, but we wished for a little bit more."

Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, left the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway feeling much the same, after a NASCAR official's incorrect call for a loose lug nut cost Johnson valuable time on a pit stop during an eventual fifth-place finish. A fourth-place finish followed at New Hampshire, and the win at Dover creates the unmistakable sense of positive momentum after lost opportunities. Johnson hadn't scored more points than Kenseth in a race in seven events before Sunday.

"The fact of the matter is this: I feel like in Chicago, if we hadn't had a botched-up little pit stop there at the first part of the race -- some of our doing, a little of assistance -- I feel like we could have won the race in Chicago," Knaus said. "I feel like last week in Loudon -- [we] got jumbled up on some restarts, couldn't get to where we needed to -- we could have beaten him there.

"What we're doing right now is we are just trying to establish a foundation and set ourselves up for the second half of the Chase. As long as we do that, we're going to be where we need to be."

By the looks of it, all there together.

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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