Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Monday, June 1, 2009

Johnson dominates, rebounds to win at Dover

Seeing as how he led 298 of 400 laps, one would think Jimmie Johnson ran away with the Autism Speaks 400 at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. But a rare pit road miscue on the last round of stops left the No. 48 in ninth on the last restart with 32 laps to go -- which, given how this car handles in traffic versus clean air, left many thinking this wouldn't be Johnson's day after all.

Yeah, about that ...

Johnson picked his way through the field over the closing laps, going high and low to pass cars before he waged a spirited battle with Tony Stewart. Stewart tried to hold him off, taking away the high line going through the corners and trying to make his No. 14 Chevy about three times as wide as it really was, but Johnson swung high out of Turn 4 with two laps to go, taking the lead and his second win of the season.

This isn't the first time Johnson's pulled off something like this -- last fall in Atlanta, Johnson went from 10th to second in the closing laps to negate much of the momentum Carl Edwards had in winning that race. The No. 48 team's ability to overcome the rare miscue like that is a testament not only to crew chief Chad Knaus' tenacity atop the pit box, but also to Johnson's abilities behind the wheel.

Honestly, has there been a champion in the last 20 years more underrated than Johnson? He's won the last three -- and could very well win his fourth this season -- yet no one gives him the credit he deserves. It's possible this team is peaking too soon, since the No. 48 normally doesn't hit its stride until later in the summer, but Sunday's win should serve notice to everyone else.

Even Stewart, who took over the points lead from Jeff Gordon. Stewart, with his second-place effort, now has six Top-5 and nine Top-10 finishes on the season -- even if he hasn't won as points-paying race yet, Stewart is heading into the time of year where he truly hits his stride. The first owner-driver since the late Alan Kulwicki in 1992 to lead the points, Stewart has never led the standings this early in a season.

Impressive, considering he already has two championships on his mantle.

Johnson and Stewart might very well stage a duel for the ages for the championship, and if it's anything like the battle they waged in the closing laps on Sunday, the rest of this season could be quite entertaining.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 12th-place effort on Sunday got the Lance McGrew Era off to a promising start. After rolling off the grid 22nd, Earnhardt toiled near the back in the opening stages before calling the No. 88 to pit during an early caution. When the caution flew again nearly 50 laps later when the leaders were going through green-flag stops, Junior found himself in the Top 10 -- where he stayed after pitting again with the leaders.

Earnhardt ran in the Top 5 for a good portion of the race, giving McGrew good, detailed feedback. In return, McGrew assured Earnhardt the right changes would be made and his driver was doing a good job. One of the reasons Earnhardt went from the back to the front like that was that McGrew gave him a good adjustment on an early pit stop, which helped the car find more grip.

The best feedback of the day? Earnhardt's car got tight toward the end of the race, and he told McGrew (paraphrasing here), "Don't go too far on the track bar; we tried that in practice and it didn't work." He wasn't giving Tony Eury Jr. that sort of feedback, for whatever reason; that sort of thing is the kind of information a crew chief can work with to make a good call.

It wasn't a Top-10, but it was a good start -- and certainly better than the 27th, 27th and 40th we saw the last three races. Earnhardt admitted the team was "building Rome," but if they can build on Sunday's effort, the No. 88 might be on its way to being a weekly contender again. The Chase might be out of reach, but race wins might not be.

Also, good show by Kasey Kahne, debuting the new Dodge engine to finish sixth. With Penske Racing carrying the banner for Dodge this season -- and the new engine being a big part of it -- Richard Petty Motorsports had to get on the ball. Kahne was the only driver with that motor, and it's unknown how often the team will run it in the future, but after Sunday, I'd try to run that in every car, every race.

By the way, Kahne won at Pocono last June. Guess where we're headed this weekend ...

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Autism Speaks 400
1. Jimmie Johnson**
2. Tony Stewart*
3. Greg Biffle*
4. Matt Kenseth*
5. Kurt Busch
6. Kasey Kahne
7. Carl Edwards*
8. Ryan Newman
9. Casey Mears
10. Mark Martin*
11. Clint Bowyer
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
13. Sam Hornish Jr.
14. Jamie McMurray
15. Joey Logano
16. Jeff Burton
17. Kevin Harvick
18. David Reutimann*
19. Reed Sorenson*
20. Marcos Ambrose
21. Martin Truex Jr.
22. Regan Smith
23. Kyle Busch
24. David Ragan
25. Brian Vickers
26. Jeff Gordon
27. Elliott Sadler*
28. Bobby Labonte
29. A.J. Allmendinger
30. Juan Pablo Montoya*
31. David Stremme
32. Paul Menard
33. Robby Gordon
34. John Andretti
35. Michael Waltrip
36. Denny Hamlin
37. Scott Speed
38. Joe Nemechek
39. Dave Blaney
40. Mike Bliss
41. Mike Skinner
42. Tony Raines
43. David Gilliland*

*led a lap (5 bonus points)
**led most laps (5 more bonus points)

No comments: