By JEFF WOLFE
Jimmie Johnson’s car had a different look.
Jimmie Johnson actually had a different look.
But the No. 48 Hendrick Motorspots team got quite the familiar result at Dover International Speedway Sunday. Johnson led 289 of the 400 laps at the track called the Monster Mile in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series and tied the track record with his seventh Sprint Cup win.
Johnson, driving a Madagascar 3 sponsored Chevrolet with teal as the primary color, also sported a rainbow-colored wig during driver introductions and then again in Victory Lane. Maybe it was that bit of good karma that allowed him to win his 57th career race and 202nd race for car owner Rick Hendrick, even though he admitted teammate Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 was the fastest car on the track.
“It was a team effort, but I think that 24 was the car to beat, but he had some troubles,” Johnson said. “The way we protected the win was on pit road. The hair growth … it’s afro circus. All the characters wear this at some point in the movie. I couldn’t resist it today.”
Gordon wouldn’t resist some of Johnson’s good luck if it came his way. He led midway through the race and clearly had the fastest car. But a loose left-rear tire brought him into the pits during a green flag on lap 246, leaving him two laps down. He passed Johnson to get one of the laps back and actually led again when the green flag pit stops cycled around on lap 298. But after pitting on lap 325, he gave up the lead and could never get higher than his 13th-place finish the rest of the day.
“We had the best race car,” said Gordon, who has had fast cars and a series of bad luck this season. “We’ve just been talking about this too many times this year. We cannot afford to make mistakes. You cannot afford to get behind, especially to the No. 48.
“We had the car to win this race. Even with the problem, it was going to work out for us. If we don’t get that debris caution, we have a chance.”
That caution on lap 341 hurt Gordon because he was the third car one lap down. It didn’t give him a chance to pass the two other cars a lap down, meaning he was not eligible to get the Lucky Dog and get back on the lead lap, which goes to the first car one lap down.
But if Gordon, who led 60 laps, was definitely the fastest car Sunday, Johnson was definitely the second fastest. So, with his Hendrick teammate out of the picture in the final 75 laps, Johnson pulled away from the field on each of the last three restarts after a yellow flag, the final one on lap 369.
“The tricky part on the restarts is the hot tires would pick up rubber and it was so tough to keep tires clean,” Johnson said. “The way track position is, it’s tough to get by guys. That was the part I was most concerned about was hot tires on the restart.” There were seven cautions on the day for 32 laps, but the first caution of the day was the most interesting.
On lap 10, a 13-car crash started when Tony Stewart, who started 29th, nudged Landon Cassill coming out of Turn 2. When Stewart slowed to try and avoid a spin, he was then hit in the back by Regan Smith, proceeding to make a big mess that caused a 19-minute, 54-second red flag to clean up the carnage. The 13 cars were the most involved in a NASCAR accident this season.
“The 83 (Cassill) was trying to get down to the bottom,” said Stewart, the defending Sprint Cup champion. “It was just not a real good deal at the beginning of the race like this. It was a crappy weekend. As far back as we started, I didn’t have the luxury to be as patient as I wanted to be.”
Smith took responsibility for the accident, but even that was debatable.
“I got in the back of the 14 (Stewart) and started the whole thing,” Smith said. “I didn’t have time to get whoaed up with it.”
Johnson did take time to reflect a bit on the historic win as NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Bobby Allison are the other two drivers with seven wins at Dover.
“It’s just a huge honor,” Johnson said. “I was never one who paid attention to stats because truthfully I never thought I would be a guy who would build up any cool
stats. But I’m very proud of the seven wins here and to be in that elite company.”
The win also kept Hendrick Motorsports on a roll, giving the team its fourth straight victory, counting the non-points Sprint All-Star race at Charlotte. Johnson won at Darlington and the All-Star race and Kasey Kahne won last week at Charlotte.
“It’s difficult to stay on top, but it’s been a good solid 3-4 weeks for Hendrick Motorsports,” Johnson said.
Other solid finishers Sunday were Kevin Harvick in second, followed by Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, Martin Truex, Jr., Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne and Marcos Ambrose.
Kenseth’s finish leaves him one point behind teammate Greg Biffle, who was 11th Sunday, for the points lead. But in all reality, Johnson and the No. 48 look like the team to beat, even though the Chase doesn’t start until September.
“I feel good about our position and obviously you want to be as high as you can in the points,” Kenseth said. “But certainly we know we have some work to do. I don’t think anybody could run with the 24 and 48 today. They were in a league of their own.”