Johnson looms in Chase, can continue Dover dominance

Jimmie Johnson (Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson (Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson (Getty Images)

It’s an annual affair. Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup season comes around, and as usual, Jimmie Johnson can be found at the top of the pack.

Two races into the Chase, Johnson sits quietly at fourth on the Grid. That was not a typo, quietly.

Maybe his performance is just expected. Even a casual stock car racing fan would guess the defending Chase winner would be getting some more hype. After all, he is trying to join Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt at the pinnacle of the sport as the only seven-time series champions. But Johnson’s quest for NASCAR immortality has been overshadowed lately by the performance of Team Penske and the career renaissances of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Expect that to change this weekend.

Johnson heads into the final Challenger Round race at Dover International Speedway for Sunday’s AAA 400 (2 p.m. ET on ESPN), a site where he has been more dominant than any active driver by a landslide. The No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet driver owns a track-record nine wins, five more than the next highest active driver (Gordon). In 25 starts at the track, Johnson also owns 13 top fives, 18 top 10s and an otherworldly 122.5 driver rating.

“I love Dover,” Johnson said. “It’s one of the best tracks for this Lowe’s/Kobalt team. I think it goes back to my off-road days, this track just suits my driving style.”

Winner of the last two races at the Monster Mile, Johnson will attempt to match David Pearson, Rusty Wallace and Gordon as the fourth driver to notch three consecutive victories at the one-mile concrete oval. He will also try to sweep the track for the first time since 2009 when he achieved the feat on the way to his fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title.

After a month-long, five-race summer swoon when he finished worse than 38th three times and failed to register a showing better than 14th, Johnson has logged five top 10s in his last six starts. He can advance to the Chase’s Contender Round regardless of how other drivers fare with a Dover performance of 24th or better, 25th and at least one lap led, or 26th and the most laps led.

The 39-year-old has traditionally run well at Chase tracks. In addition to Dover, he leads active drivers in wins at Charlotte and Martinsville – both of which come in a different Chase round.

Regardless of past success, Johnson is focused on the now.

“It’s awesome to have tracks that you love and tracks that you’ve had success at in the Chase and I feel like seven or eight of them have been historically awesome tracks for us,” he said. “That part is great. Stats are nice to look at, but you have to live in the present. Just because we’ve been good at those tracks before doesn’t guarantee us anything going back.”

Richard Childress Racing to follow up stalwart showing at Monster Mile

Heading into last Saturday’s race at Kentucky Speedway, Chase Elliott, Michael McDowell and Sam Hornish Jr. garnered most of the NASCAR Nationwide Series headlines.

The Richard Childress Racing team stole the show.

RCR drivers Brendan Gaughan, Brian Scott and Ty Dillon swept the top three positions, respectively, and Cale Conley finished sixth to cap off a stalwart showing at the 1.5-mile tri-oval.

Brendan Gaughan (Getty Images)
Brendan Gaughan (Getty Images)

The organization goes into the Dover 200 on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN 2) looking to continue its momentum.

At Kentucky, Gaughan blew past Dillon and Elliott shortly after the final restart to clinch his second victory of the season. He will go for win number three at the Monster Mile where he has a 14.4 average finish in four starts.

“As a driver, Dover International Speedway is such a fun track,” Gaughan said. “I like that our runs can and are sometimes 150-laps because I love green-flag pit stops. I would consider myself pretty efficient getting on and off pit road and my pit crew that RCR gives me is outstanding.”

Scott’s runner-up finish over the weekend vaulted him to fourth in the points standings. The 26-year-old seems on the verge of his first NASCAR Nationwide Series win, currently riding a string of 10 top-10 finishes in his last 11 races. He heads to Dover looking to improve on his seventh-place finish there at the end of May.

“We can’t go back to the shop and high-five each other because we had a good night at Kentucky,” Scott said. “We have to focus on Dover, Kansas, Charlotte and all the races we have coming up and we have to work even harder than everyone else to keep our edge.”

Although he finished third, Ty Dillon dominated at Kentucky all weekend, winning the pole and leading 155-of-200 laps. He simply could not close out the race on the final restart. Ranked third in the driver standings, Dillon will try to close the 38-point gap separating him from series leader Elliott at Dover, a place where he claims two eighth-place finishes in three starts.

“Win races,” said Dillon when asked about his approach for the final six events of the season. “We have the capability of doing so, we just need to win races. I think this past weekend in Kentucky really showed that we can lead laps, we can run top five and we’re still in contention for this championship.”

Odds in favor of Jones as No. 51 visits Area 51

NASCAR Next member Erik Jones leads the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports team to its owner’s hometown of Las Vegas for his first-career start at the track in Saturday’s Rhino Linings 350 (10 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1).

And the odds are quite good there will be a No. 51 Toyota Tundra “sighting” in Victory Lane.

Erik Jones. (Getty Images)
Erik Jones. (Getty Images)

The No. 51 team has been dominant at 1.5-mile tracks this season, scoring four victories in five starts. Busch, who splits seat time with the 18-year-old Jones, has piloted the truck in all four victories, but his protégé has gained valuable experience at intermediate tracks since his 11th-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway in June. Jones turned in a seventh-place performance in the NASCAR Nationwide race at Chicagoland Speedway in July and ran the truck for Busch at Chicagoland practice earlier this month where he posted the third-fastest time in the first session.

“Erik was able to get a little more mile-and-a-half experience by practicing the truck for Kyle at Chicago and I think it really helped his confidence,” said Eric Phillips, the No. 51 crew chief. “He was fast in practice and then Kyle was really happy with the truck in the race and went on to win. I think with those extra practices and running the Nationwide race at Chicago, Erik has a better understanding of what he needs on the bigger race tracks now.”

No stranger to Victory Lane, Jones won the NCWTS race at Iowa in June and claims three top-10 finishes in four races since then. The Michigan native will try to give KBM its first victory at Las Vegas, one of only five tracks on the current schedule where the team has yet to earn a win.

Owner points are also at stake for Jones and KBM. The No. 51 truck ranks third in the owner standings, trailing ThorSport’s No. 88 (Matt Crafton) and No. 98 (Johnny Sauter) Toyotas by eight points and one point, respectively.

“Our mile-and-a-half program here at KBM is obviously very fast right now, hopefully we can go out and have another strong run this weekend at Las Vegas and bring home Kyle his first win at his home track,” Jones said.

 NASCAR This Weekend
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

Next Race: AAA 400

The Place: Dover International Speedway

The Date: Sunday, Sept. 28

The Time: 2 p.m. (ET)

TV: ESPN, 1 p.m. (ET)

Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90

Distance: 400 miles (400 laps)

NASCAR Nationwide Series

Next Race: Dover 200

The Place: Dover International Speedway

The Date: Saturday, Sept. 27

The Time: 3:30p.m. (ET)

TV: ESPN, 3:30 p.m. (ET)

Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90

Distance: 200 miles (200 laps)

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series

Next Race: Rhino Linings 350

The Place: Las Vegas Motor Speedway

The Date: Friday, Sept. 27

The Time: 10 p.m. (ET)

TV: FOX Sports 1, 10 p.m. (ET)

Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90

Distance: 350 Kilometers (146 laps)

Greg Engle
About Greg Engle 7421 Articles
Greg is a published award winning sportswriter who spent 23 years combined active and active reserve military service, much of that in and around the Special Operations community. Greg is the author of "The Nuts and Bolts of NASCAR: The Definitive Viewers' Guide to Big-Time Stock Car Auto Racing" and has been published in major publications across the country including the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was also a contributor to Chicken Soup for the NASCAR Soul, published in 2010, and the Christmas edition in 2016. He wrote as the NASCAR, Formula 1, Auto Reviews and National Veterans Affairs Examiner for and has appeared on Fox News. He holds a BS degree in communications, a Masters degree in psychology and is currently a PhD candidate majoring in psychology. He is currently the weekend Motorsports Editor for Autoweek.