Thursday, January 18, 2018
Sports

Johnson vaults in Chase after eighth win at Dover

DOVER, Del. — Jimmie Johnson held off a teammate, passed two Hall of Famers and dominated again at Dover, putting the Chase for the Championship field on notice that his run at a sixth Sprint Cup title in the No. 48 is gaining steam.

Johnson never let Dale Earnhardt Jr. catch him down the stretch at the AAA 400 on Sunday and won for a record eighth time at Dover International Speedway. Johnson had shared the mark of seven wins on the concrete mile with Bobby Allison and Richard Petty.

"Truthfully, it was the first thought that went through my mind when I crossed the finish line," Johnson said. "It wasn't long after I thought about the impact of winning in the Chase."

Johnson's win bumped him from third to second in the Chase standings. Matt Kenseth, who won the first two Chase races, holds an eight-point lead as the Chase heads to Kansas for the fourth of its 10 races.

Led by Johnson's fifth win this year, the top 10 was made up of Chase drivers. Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch rounded out the top five. Kevin Harvick, Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer completed the top 10.

"You've got to win when you're at your best track," Johnson said. "I think (gaining) any points on the 18 (Busch) or 20 (Kenseth) would have been a very good day. Max points, it's an awesome day."

Not so much for Earnhardt, who had one of the fastest cars, but he missed pit road and gave up the lead early in the race. He had a strong-enough Chevrolet to get back into the race and contend for his first win of the season but couldn't pass Johnson.

"We left everybody in the mirror," Earnhardt said. "We were clicking off some laps but just not fast enough to get to Jimmie."

Kenseth kept his points lead even as he fell short in trying to become the first driver to win the first three Chase races. "For how bad I felt like we struggled with the car, that was a decent finish," Kenseth said.

Johnson led 243 of the 400 laps to help extend his Chase record with his 23rd career win in 93 starts in NASCAR's version of the playoffs. He swept Dover in 2002 and 2009, and won races at the track in 2005, 2010 and 2012.

In this year's spring race at Dover, Johnson jumped a restart and served a pass-through penalty that cost him the win. Crew chief Chad Knaus brought the same car back for this race, and Johnson was nearly flawless.

Johnson is in the hunt for his sixth Cup championship, which would put him one behind Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for most in series history.

Johnson caught a break when Earnhardt slowed during a green-flag pit stop and missed the entrance to pit road. Earnhardt went from holding a 3.7-second lead on Johnson to trailing by more than 9 seconds.

Johnson took the lead and took off for his 65th victory in 428 career starts.

Even pit strategy that included a late four-tire stop wasn't enough to boost Earnhardt past his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. "The mistake I made coming on to pit road and missing pit road completely (cost us)," Earnhardt said. "If I had not given up that track position and had a smart-enough race to keep the lead when it counted, right at the end we might have won the race. It would have been hard to get by us, just like it was hard to get by Jimmie."

Carl Edwards, who finished 35th, entered Sunday fourth in the standings but plummeted to 11th because of a tire issue.

It's going to take major problems for the top three and an improbable winning streak from a driver in the back to shake up the standings.

Kyle Busch, sitting third in the Chase, has a pair of seconds and a fifth. "It's certainly appealing, and you could be happy with it," he said, "but we're a little disappointed at the same time."

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