Johnson leads final practice at Dover

TALLADEGA, AL - APRIL 27: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 27, 2019 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Jimmie Johnson was right where he was accustomed to be—at the top of the scoring pylon at Dover International Speedway.

OK, it was Saturday afternoon, not Sunday. And it was practice, not the Gander RV 400 (2 p.m. ET Sunday on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Nevertheless, the speed in practice—161.863 mph—and his ability to work the outside lane gave the seven-time champion cause for optimism as Sunday’s main event approaches.

Even though he’s the all-time victory leader with 11 wins at the Monster Mile, Johnson needs to find a positive outlook wherever he can. Johnson’s 11th triumph at Dover was also his most recent in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

That was June 4, 2017, and since then, 69 races have passed since Johnson last visited Victory Lane. But that hasn’t diminished his fondness for Dover—or his conviction that he can win.

“Maybe I’m a fool, but just every time I come here, I feel like this,” Johnson said after final practice. “This is just one of those places that an athlete finds a bond with a facility or a venue that they connect with.

“I don’t care if I have only three wheels on that thing, I still feel like I would have a shot to win. I just love this place.”

Among the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers, Johnson was slowest in Friday’s qualifying session. Chase Elliott won the pole, and teammate William Byron will start beside him on the front row. Alex Bowman qualified fifth, with Johnson earning the 12th starting position.

But as dramatically as track conditions change at Dover, Johnson was encouraged by Saturday’s practice.

“One thing I did see that was really nice is that the outside lane seemed to have a bit more of an opportunity,” Johnson said. “With lower-downforce packages here you can’t commit to running a lot of wide-open throttle around the outside.

“Today in practice at least, with all this downforce (thanks to a taller rear spoiler introduced this year), I could climb in the throttle hard and carry a lot of speed off the corners. I saw some other cars out there doing it, too. So maybe this package will open up the groove and get us two or three lanes of great side-by-side racing.”

Greg Engle