Jimmie Johnson led only seven laps Sunday, but he led the most important one. Johnson took the lead from Kyle Larson on a green-white-checkered flag finish and won the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway.
The win came after Johnson was forced to come from the back of the field after his crew made a gear overnight change in his Chevy. He was inside the top 10 by lap 52 and inside the top five by lap. In all Johnson was credited with leading seven laps including the final one.
“The conditions were really tough today,” Johnson said. “I think everybody struggled with balance, corner entry was very uncomfortable for the cars. Mine was decent. Once I got to the top two or three I just couldn’t charge the corner hard enough to catch anybody and put a competitive pass on them. I got the restart of my life there at the end. “
Larson led a race high 241 laps but saw it all come apart in the closing laps. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver had a lead of just over 2 seconds, but a crash by David Regan brought out the races 14th caution erased his lead and set up the overtime finish.
“He (Jimmie Johnson) did what he had to do to get the best launch that he did,” Larson said. “We were both playing games a little bit. He just took off better than I did. I wasn’t really complaining about the restart. He did a good job. He’s a seven-time champion for a reason. He’s got a golden horseshoe somewhere; and he’s really good at executing. So, I’ve just got to get better at that. We had a dominant car all day. We had a couple of runs where we got off; maybe some bad tires or something. But we were able to rebound from those struggles.”
On the restart Johnson took a slight lead underneath Larson and was pulling ahead, as the field got onto the backstretch a large crash erupted behind the leaders. Johnson crossed the overtime line just before NASCAR through the caution giving Johnson his 11th Dover win, the 83rd of his career tying him with Cale Yarbrough for sixth on the all-time win list.
“I mean, I never thought I would end up here in NASCAR as a kid racing in the dirt out in Southern California,” Johnson said. “I was a big Cale Yarborough fan and I remember going to a race in Oklahoma with my parents and my brother. We were driving across the country and we pulled up to a Hardee’s. I had no idea it was a burger stand and I really thought when I walked in the door I was going to Cale Yarborough’s race shop (laughs). It was very disappointing. I had a burger and left and then understood the world of sponsorship.
“To be here and tie him at 83 wins is amazing. We just got the tribute helmet. I wasn’t sure how quickly we’d be, or if we’d be able to go there, and get it done. But, Cale, you’re the man. Thank you for all you have done for our sport.”
A total of 10 cars were involved in the final crash including Ty Dillon who was leading in the closing stages thanks to pit strategy. Dillon, along with 12 others, stayed out during a caution on lap 345, while the leaders including Larson, Martin Truex Jr. who led 102 laps, and Johnson pitted.
Johnson with Larson close behind was back up to second by lap 353. Larson took second from Johnson and soon had the lead from Dillon. Truex worked his way up to fourth with nine laps to go as Larson was holding a steady lead. A lead that was gone with the Regan crash.
Dillon was none too pleased after the race after getting loose and setting off the multi-car crash that ended the race. It was a slip he blamed on speedy dry left over from the Regan crash clean up.
“We had to restart fourth on old tires and I just think the air off the No. 31 got me a little loose,” Dillon said. “They left a bunch of sand there off Turn 2 and as soon as I got loose and hit that sand it was all over. I feel bad for all the cars that got torn up. But, really, I don’t really know what the No. 31 or myself could have done any different to stay out of that crash.”
Ty Dillon was scored 14th.
Truex was third followed by Ryan Newman and Chase Elliott in fifth.
“We had a good day,” Truex said. “We had a good car and just got caught by that caution when we pitted and lost our shot at the win. I don’t know that we had the best car, but we had a good car for sure and, you know? The 42 (Kyle Larson), the 48 (Jimmie Johnson), us – I think we were all so close. Whoever it seemed like got out front was the best, but all in all, you know, it was a good day. Just not the finish we hoped for, but still when you’re this disappointed with third, it speaks volumes about your team and where you’re at and what’s going on, so I had a lot of fun out there today.”
Polesitter Kyle Busch led only 19 laps suffering a wheel that came off after leaving the pits on lap 16. He recovered and was running inside the top five in the closing laps, but a punctured tire sent him to the pits with 3 laps to go and left him with a 16th place finish.
Brother Kurt was in contention early, but got loose while racing for the lead on lap 64. His Ford slipped up the track and sent Brad Keselowski into the wall. Busch was able to continue, Keselowski was done for the day. Then on lap 97 Busch lost a right rear tire and his Ford hit the wall hard and was destroyed.
Daniel Suarez was sixth, Jamie McMurray seventh, Denny Hamlin eighth with Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick rounding out the top 10.
Next up for the Monster Energy Cup series in the Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway next Sunday.