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Posted: Sunday May 31, 2009 9:18PM; Updated: Monday June 1, 2009 7:15AM
Mark Beech Mark Beech >
INSIDE NASCAR

Five things we learned at Dover

Story Highlights

Jimmie Johnson is a strong bet to win a fourth-straight Cup

Johnson will have to drive over Tony Stewart to win the Cup

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 12th-place finish showed progress

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Jimmie Johnson celebrated a victory in Dover for the fourth time in his career.
Jason Smith/Getty Images

1. Jimmie Johnson is a strong bet to win a fourth-straight Cup. How thoroughly did Johnson dominate at Dover today? Let us count the ways: his driver rating was a perfect 150.0; he led a race-high (and career-best) 298 of 400 laps; after a bobbled tire change on pit row shuffled him from first all the way back to ninth with 33 laps left, he charged to the front with bloodless efficiency, catching a game Tony Stewart with three laps left to go. Johnson and his team already look to be in Chase-winning trim.

Of all the drivers at the top of the standings, Johnson has been the most consistent of the series' multi-race winners -- Kyle Busch (three wins), Matt Kenseth (two) and Mark Martin (two). Johnson's eight top-10 finishes are the most of anybody this year except for Tony Stewart, who has yet to win a race. J.J. now sits in third in the standings, and isn't likely to drop much lower before the postseason begins.

2. If Johnson wants to win the Cup, he's going to have to drive over Tony Stewart to do it. It's time to stop being surprised by Stewart's early success. By now, he should be considered by everybody to be a favorite when the Chase rolls around. As we've already noted, Smoke has yet to win a race, but it seems only a matter of time before he wins several. He leads the series in both top-five (seven) and top-10 finishes (nine), and has now crossed the start-finish line as the runner-up three times this season. He's clearly been energized by his new role as a team owner.

3. Is NASCAR boring? Yes and no. On one hand, there was Johnson's mad dash to the checkered flag today. On the other, there was the mind-numbing sight of his No. 48 Chevy running up front for what seemed an eternity. For most of the day, the racing at Dover was only exciting if you weren't watching the leaders, and the action clearly showed that when the new car is running in clean air, a NASCAR race can look an awful lot like an F-1 parade.

4. It wasn't always pretty, but Junior's 12th-place finish showed progress. For a good chunk of the race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked to have a car capable of finishing in the top 10. For his first race with a new crew chief, that wasn't bad at all. As has been the case for much of the season, Junior ran inconsistently, but he held on gamely for his best finish in more than a month. More importantly, his communication with interim crew chief Lance McGrew sounded professional and, more importantly, thoughtful. Too often towards the end of his run with former crew chief Tony Eury Jr., Junior seemed to get frustrated and peevish. It's starting to sound like he's turned a corner.

"They told me that I need to give them a lot and I took it upon myself to do that," he said after the race. "It was really hard to be that way with Tony (Eury) Jr., and it wasn't his fault. Maybe it's my own personal fault, but me and him were too cool to talk that much to each other. It was just too much pride I guess between me and him. I don't know how you love somebody so much and carry so much pride around them, but that's the way we were. It's real easy to talk to Lance. He's a sponge, taking all that information in."

5. This was a good day to be driving a Dodge. Kurt Busch finished fifth. No surprise there, as he's been near the top of the points standings all season. But right behind him was Kasey Kahne, who was racing for the first time in a car with one of the new, more powerful Dodge engines. (Sam Hornish Jr., also in a Dodge, finished 13th). After several seasons of being less competitive overall when compared to Chevy, Ford and Toyota, the Dodge brand finally, and thankfully, seems to have produced an engine capable of keeping its drivers competitive on a weekly basis. "The new motor had plenty of power, which made the car fun to drive," said Kahne. "We've made some really big gains the last few weeks."

 
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