Five things we learned at Dover
Jimmie Johnson's focus puts him prime position for his fifth straight Cup title
Denny Hamlin succeeded in minimizing problems in a place he usually struggles
Cool and relaxed, Carl Edwards is a nice dark horse in the final eight races
After a weekend filled with verbal clashes that would have made Don King proud, Dover's heavyweight fight promised at NASCAR Chase race No. 2 fell flat. In fact, the only bite the Monster Mile took was the crowd, a noticeably sparse and rather inattentive audience watching the same movie they've seen unfold three times in the last four races here: Jimmie Johnson come out and put a whooping on the field.
As the waters parted for the No. 48, his competitors learned a harsh lesson in how hard it's going to be to dethrone the reigning four-time champ. The way in which he went about his business leads off my Five Things from race No. 28 of 2010:
1) Jimmie Johnson kept his eyes on the prize.
Driven, determined, dominant once up front. That was the No. 48 in a nutshell Sunday, never wavering on its goal of Chase recovery following a disastrous 25th-place debut at Loudon. While failed inspections, frayed tempers and fanatical media attention happened elsewhere, Johnson and company went through the weekend settling in and going about their business. Not once did he poke at the fiery controversy surrounding Clint Bowyer on Friday, working through those questions with a touch of class and a tint of indifference.
"I hate that the No. 33 [and Bowyer] is in the position [they're in], but NASCAR has to be consistent with what they do. Zero tolerance is zero tolerance," he said. "There is no 'I'm sorry, you are close.' It is black or white. I've experienced it on my own as some other teams have, and now the No. 33 is going through it as well."
So well-trained is Johnson in public, never once did he flinch even when asked about the No. 48's own brush with inspection, a shock issue that caused the car to run through multiple times on Sunday before passing maximum height.
"Man, I don't know what goes on through tech, I didn't even know our car was in question or had to go through the sticks twice," he said. "But, I don't care. I just drive the car. Show up with my helmet and go."
That "eyes on the prize" mentality, keeping things in perspective meant the most on a weekend when Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin went at each other in Sprint Cup practice. While the two sparred, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus smiled as they did absolutely nothing to take their closest competition off their game.
"We were watching because it was entertaining," joked Johnson of the Saturday incident that happened no more than 50 feet away from them. "But I haven't thought much about it. We've done a very good job over the last four years worrying about ourselves, and we've got to maintain that."
By the end of the race, that was clearly mission accomplished as Johnson was clearly the best car, winning the pole and taking control over most of the race's second half. With Johnson in second just 35 points behind Hamlin, it's clear that the guy who holds the throne is still the driver to beat.
"Every time they're faced with adversity, they come back and make a strong statement," said Hamlin. "We knew we were going to lose a little bit to him."
Did they lose enough? That'll be what the next eight races will likely be about, the Chase's top two contenders now situated 1-2 in the season standings and ready to go at it mano a mano.
2) The winner in the Harvick/Hamlin/Bowyer prizefight? Hamlin -- just barely.
At one point this weekend, it looked like an ailing Richard Childress Racing would get the last laugh over the 150-point penalty that knocked Bowyer from Chase contention. All three RCR cars were stout in final practice, and moved up quickly to assert themselves inside the top 20 by Lap 100.
Jeff Burton kept going after that -- he wound up second, but the top 20 is where Harvick and Bowyer stalled, the latter eventually hitting the wall and never flexing the muscle he showed at Loudon. Adding insult to injury, after running 25th the No. 33 was impounded for NASCAR post-race inspection a second straight week, an outward sign in the continuing friction between the sanctioning body and a team that's publicly trashed their inspection methods pending appeal.
But perhaps the biggest cracks in the armor came from one of Bowyer's teammates. One day after Harvick and Hamlin got into it, sideswiping on track then talking smack off it like a bunch of guests on The Jerry Springer Show, Harvick was clearly agitated after his car never got going Sunday, running 15th and dropping to 65 points behind his rival. Agitated on the radio throughout, he swore at a reporter multiple times in post-race and made it clear in unprintable terms he was fired up to prove people wrong starting next week.
So that left Hamlin, fighting off reports crew chief Mike Ford was disappointed with his verbal clashes with both Harvick and Bowyer in driving the car to a play-it-safe, ninth-place finish. It fits in with a low-risk strategy he relayed to me Friday, claiming it's "not what the fans like to hear" but what was needed under this format, finishing in the top 10 for a track that usually leaves his Chase chances destroyed with an ugly DNF.
"Yeah, for sure this is the best position I've been in," he said after leaving with a 35-point lead. "Luckily, we had a good qualifying effort to keep that track position, otherwise we might have finished worse. I'm just not good at passing cars here, I don't work traffic well, I lose so much time around lapped cars. I don't really feel like I passed anybody for position all day."
It was almost a downer tone for Hamlin, but it's clearly a winner in which he and Joe Gibbs Racing also revealed a weakness in their biggest rival: pit road. He, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano had the three fastest times in the pits, a small victory moving forward on a day when the No. 48 crew struggled at times -- they had a net loss of four spots under caution flag stops -- and looked inferior to the No. 11 bunch moving forward.
"I think everyone anticipates Jimmie is going to be strong here," Hamlin said, summarizing a mixed-message type of day. "So we knew we were going to lose a little bit to him, but we just tried to minimize that with the best finish possible, and I think we did a good job of executing our plan today."
Harvick and Bowyer just plain didn't execute, and now they're likely on the outside of the title Chase looking in.
3) Looking for a Chase darkhorse? How about Carl Edwards.
While Bowyer, Tony Stewart and other title longshots fade into the dark, one darkhorse stands out above the fray. Just moments after exiting his No. 99 Ford, Carl Edwards was as relaxed as I've ever seen him after a Chase race, confident in two straight top-10 finishes while graciously signing every autograph and taking pictures for kids down pit road. In fact, while we walked together for a few minutes he stopped randomly to thank some passing military personnel for both watching the race and defending our country. It was a stark difference from Hamlin, who while amicable needed a towel and seemed ready for a shower and some sleep after his performance.
That's the essence of the cool, fanatically fit Edwards, lifting up this Chase with nothing to lose after underperforming early in 2010. He's the king of the intermediate tracks, five of which lie ahead with him sitting sixth in points, just 73 behind Hamlin and with a tick more experience on the resume. Sure, the Busch brothers and Kevin Harvick lie third, fourth and fifth, but that trio's so busy ripping their teams apart those pit crews average three different therapists on speed dial.
Edwards, in contrast, was rated G on the radio Sunday, he and Bob Osborne clicking again while transforming back into Ford's best hope. With Roush Fenway's other two Chasers, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, already 140 points out, don't be surprised if this camp throws all its effort behind a longshot title bid for the No. 99.
4) Richard Petty got a Best Buy deal of his own in A.J. Allmendinger.
While Kasey Kahne's team has all but mailed it in with Red Bull Racing around the corner for 2011 -- his No. 9 was 29th Sunday -- there's a new No. 1 sheriff in town driving for The King. Starting second, A.J. Allmendinger was on fire in leading 143 of the first 171 laps, pulling out to a four-second lead at points until a flat right-rear tire killed his chances. That unscheduled stop under green left him nearly two laps back, yet even with that deficit and only one more caution the rest of the way he charged back, took the wave around and fought his way up to a lead-lap, 10th-place finish that may have been the best all-around performance of his career on an oval.
"It was fun to lead," he said afterwards, up front for 100 more circuits on this day alone than during his previous 107-start, four-year Cup career. "No wonder Jimmie is smiling so much."
Just don't be fooled; A.J. and his No. 43 team had a smile just as wide, thanks to three straight top-12 finishes as he builds his case as a 2011 Chase contender.
"We're getting really good at fighting back and making good finishes out of a problem that happens," he said. "I would like to have a consistent race one of these days, but we've got fast race cars and we're getting there."
5) Mark Martin got his mojo back.
OK, so maybe it's a little weird to use that word with a 51-year-old who carries an AARP card along with his NASCAR license. But for a wily veteran suffering through his worst full-time season in seven years, confidence was the keyword for a Sunday drive in which Martin climbed up 30 spots, a valiant effort after failing post-race qualifying inspection -- interesting enough, for another Hendrick shock issue (over maximum pressure) which dropped him to the back of the pack.
"I could do 100 pushups right now," Martin joked after posting the third-fastest time on Friday, the best showing he'd had since Indy in July. That news conference was the most light-hearted, relaxed and refereshed he'd been all season, and you can only think that's something to build on over the remaining eight races, a stretch in which the Chase runner-up finisher excelled last year.
Race Grade: C-. I absolutely love covering the races at Dover; it's my home track, a personal connection where the staff, facility and racing itself is typically top-notch. This weekend, they tried everything to make the product worth watching, from having the drivers introduce themselves during introductions to giving away all sorts of free tickets and prizes. But as man after man stood up in pre-race, the PA system muffled their speeches, ominously foreshadowing a day of unfulfilled potential. In a race where passing proved difficult to near-impossible (Hamlin claimed he didn't pass a car for position all day -- and that's over 400 miles!) a track lacking grip combined with an awkward-handling Car of Tomorrow led to a lot of drivers simply hanging on. And trying to hold their line, in single file, isn't enough to keep dwindling fans -- attendance was announced at 88,000, but a look at the crowd would make 70K a high-end estimate -- from nodding off to sleep, no matter how close those "Chase standings" are supposed to make the product.
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