Jimmie Johnson made both headway in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and history at Dover International Speedway after holding off Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the final laps to win the AAA 400, scoring his record eighth career triumph at the Monster Mile.
A debris caution with 31 laps to go triggered one last round of pit stops, which saw Johnson retain the lead after taking two tires. Joining him in the two-tire camp were Jeff Gordon and Chase leader Matt Kenseth, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. took four tires for the last stint.
When the green flag came back out with 26 to go, Earnhardt quickly shot past Gordon and Kenseth to move to second position but couldn’t quite reel in Johnson, who was able to make the the two-tire stop work out handsomely.
“When they lined up right behind me, I thought I was gonna have my hands full and I did,” Johnson told ESPN after winning on a day where he led 243 laps. “Junior drove a whale of a race but the track position really gave me the advantage I needed to hold him off.”
With the victory, Johnson moved to second in the Chase at just eight points behind Kenseth, who fell back at the end to a seventh-place finish. Kyle Busch dropped to third in the Chase at 12 points behind Kenseth despite finishing fifth in the race.
And with seven races to go, it appears that the predictions of this being a three-horse race are coming true after all. Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon are tied for fourth in the Chase, but at a whopping 39 points behind Kenseth.
“All these teams are great and when you put the 18 [Kyle Busch] and the 20 [Kenseth] up there, it’s going to make this a very difficult deal,” he said. “I think it’ll be fun for the fans to watch. We came to a good track and we got what we needed to get it done. I know that 20 is going to be awfully strong for the rest of the stretch and I look forward to racing him.”
As for Earnhardt, a strong afternoon wound up just short of what would have been a popular win among his army of fans. Afterwards, he admitted disappointment after he had thought four tires would have been the right call.
“That’s real disappointing there, but Jimmie’s just really that fast,” Earnhardt said. “He’s that good around this place and I thought I might be able to get to him. I was definitely going to do whatever I could to win if I could get him within reach, but I couldn’t even get to him.
“Just real disappointed…Running second is no better than running 10th to me. I’d like to get a trophy here soon.”
Joey Logano turned in a quiet but solid third-place effort ahead of Gordon in fourth and Kyle Busch in fifth.
More to come through the evening…