- Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 October 2012 14:31
- Published on Tuesday, 02 October 2012 14:31
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Heading into last Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover, the conversation was mostly about Jimmie Johnson’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Johnson had parlayed a pair of second-place finishes into the championship lead following Round 2 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Johnson moved up a spot, displacing Chicagoland winner Brad Keselowski, whose sixth-place SYLVANIA 300 finish left him a point off the lead heading to last Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway.
Both math and history gave Johnson a virtual lock on holding or extending his lead at the “Monster Mile,” where the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion’s record is superlative.
Johnson won June’s Dover race. Dover International Speedway is known as the “Monster Mile” but Johnson has mauled the concrete-surfaced track into virtual submission. Over the past eight races, Johnson has won four times (two in the Chase); posted top fives six times and led 54% of the laps run. His Driver Rating is tops at the Delaware track. Johnson’s June victory was his seventh, matching NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for the most Dover wins.
Heading into last Sunday’s race, neither Keselowski nor New Hampshire winner Denny Hamlin – third, seven points behind Johnson - could point to anything resembling Johnson’s Dover record.
In fact, Dover would seem to be a significant challenge for both. Keselowski ranks 11th in Dover Driver Rating without a top-10 finish. Hamlin has finished 20th or worse on five occasions and was 18th in Dover’s June race – 11th among Chase qualifiers.
Dover traditionally has been Hamlin’s road block. Hamlin’s New Hampshire Motor Speedway victory was otherworldly. How else can one explain his methodical charge from a 32nd-place qualifying effort to the lead before the SYLVANIA 300’s one-third mark; 193 laps led and a 2.675-second margin of victory despite a late caution?
Hamlin called it beforehand and followed through for Joe Gibbs Racing’s 100th NASCAR Sprint Cup victory. Dover is Hamlin’s second-to-worst track in terms of Driver Rating (78.6, eighth among Chase drivers). He finished 18th in June’s race – 11th among the eventual 12 Chase qualifiers. His best Dover finish was fourth, twice. On the flip side of the Dover coin, Hamlin has five finishes of 20th or worse.
Brad Keselowski didn’t have a large body of work at Dover - just five starts in the NASCAR Sprint Cup, fewest among Chase qualifiers. He had yet to show any degree of mastery of one of the schedule’s most difficult challenges. Keselowski finished 12th in June and 20th last September and just two laps led at the track. Keselowski’s Driver Rating (76.1) ranks 11th among Chase contenders.
Penske Racing has a win and four top-five finishes, all with Kurt Busch, between 2009 and 2011. Busch won last year’s AAA 400. Penske’s seven Dover victories are tied for third all-time with the Wood Brothers.
Trouble was Keselowski apparently didn’t get the message. In his short Sprint Cup Career, Keselowski has made a habit of exceeding expectations. Aside from Jimmie Johnson’s impressive history at the Monster Mile, Denny Hamlin sat on the pole and ran in the top five most of the afternoon. Hamlin’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, Kyle Busch led 302 of the race’s 400 laps. Ultimately it came down to fuel strategy. Ten laps from the finish, Busch had to pit for fuel. Hamlin was forced to pit for a splash of fuel one lap later.
Keselowski, who has demonstrated his knack for saving fuel on several previous occasions then held off a hard charging Jeff Gordon for his second win of this years “Chase”. Sunday’s win was the fifth win of the season for the 28 year old and also his 18th top ten finish of the year. Sunday’s win was Keselowski’s fifth of the season and ties him with Hamlin for the most Cup wins so far this season. He has nine wins in 118 Sprint Cup races.