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'Winning' practice does pay off: Jimmie Johnson has the pole for Sunday's Dover 400

  Jimmie Johnson's crew, awash in the rain (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


  DOVER, Del.
  So practice does mean something this season.
  Rain Saturday washed out qualifying for Sunday's Dover 400, so NASCAR used its new rules to set the starting field – generally based on who was fastest overall in Friday's two practice sessions.

  And that was Jimmie Johnson.
  So Johnson and second-quickest AJ Allmendinger will be on the front row for the 1 p.m. ET start….barring more rain of course.
   "This new system definitely requires some thinking beforehand, and paying close attention to the weather," Johnson says.
    "We elected to start in race trim Friday, and the first run was really strong. When we saw that speed, and the threat of weather, we switched into qualifying trim."
    And Johnson said it wasn't just a matter of turning a fast lap in practice but of trying to beat everyone else and 'win' practice.
   As tight as this particular pit road is, getting a good pit can be critical for a driver.
   Winning practice these next few weeks, where late spring rain is an issue, could be important.
   It also means ripping off a hot lap early in Friday practice, when the track is at its best…though drivers have had little practice time.
    Now a question is which lane looks fast here, especially late in the race, because the leader gets choice of lanes.
   "Kyle Busch seemed to make the outside lane work a lot in the Truck race," Johnson said.
    "Then for the final restart he took the inside lane."

  And what to make of Busch, who opened the weekend by taking Friday afternoon's Truck race?
  Handling,  Busch says, may be an issue Sunday: "I tell you what, man – it's weird, because the same thing happened last year.  We're working on our Cup car in (Friday) happy hour, and it's getting tighter and tighter and tighter and tighter, so everybody is freeing up their stuff. 
   "Then we get in the race (last year here), and about 30 laps in everybody is just screaming loose. 
    "Same thing happened with the Truck. 
    "The (Cup car) was really, really tight in Cup practice…and then we had the Truck race and we were loose right out of the gate. 
    "And it seemed like a lot of guys were loose.
   "Loose is fast. But too loose is out of control."
    One surprise here perhaps is Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson's running mate. Earnhardt too was fast in practice, and will start third. But then his confidence level seems to be flagging a bit. That Richmond flop, where he was fast early in the weekend but slumped in the race, may have hurt.
   The new rain rules for qualifying "does make practice a lot more interesting," Earnhardt says, "as you are trying to kind to manipulate the system the best you can to make it an advantage."
   But can Earnhardt make that pay off in the 400?
   "Jimmie is really, really, really fast, and if anybody beats him Sunday, they've done a heck of a job, because he is just really a couple of tenths quicker than the rest of the field," Earnhardt says.

   While Allmendinger has the fastest Ford so far, the Ford to watch Sunday is probably Carl Edwards'.
   "The thing I love (about this track) is the speed -- It is so fast…and it feels extremely fast when you drive into the corners," Edwards says. "It has so much grip and such high banking.
    "It is only a mile, and when you think about the speeds we are running, it is pretty spectacular."
   Which brings up this 'Boys, have at it' thing, which appears to be getting out of control again, with Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Newman getting into at Richmond and then Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch getting into it at Darlington.
   Are NASCAR officials and these drivers perhaps getting a little too complacent? After all, Jeff Gordon had a hard hit at Richmond, and several drivers have gone nose-first into the wall lately.
   But getting a driver to agree to that is, well, unlikely.
   "I guess that is why we wear helmets," Edwards says.
   "This is auto racing; it is a wild sport.
    "I think NASCAR has done a good job of letting us take care of things ourselves.
    "And, yes, it has gotten out of hand a couple times, and I have been a part of that stuff.
    "So right now I am just glad to be leading the points, no controversy, running well, winning races and having fun.
     "It is fine with me right now; everything is good."

        The starting grid for Sunday's Dover 400 -- the FexEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks
                                                   (Set by new rain out rules)



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