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Jimmie Johnson lights up the crowd with a stirring charge to victory in the Dover 400, and Dale Jr. does well too

At the finish line, Jimmie Johnson over Tony Stewart (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   DOVER, Del.

   The best driver in NASCAR?
   Move over, Kyle Busch. It looks like right now it's Jimmie Johnson – again.
   Busch's bad luck this spring continued in Sunday's Autism Speaks 400, and Johnson put on a thrilling charge down the stretch to beat Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle.
   Johnson was dominant throughout the 3-1/2-hour race, but he had to come back from a slow pit stop in the final miles.
   And Johnson did just that, in dramatic fashion. As boring as he had made the first three hours, Johnson lit up the grandstands in the final 30 miles.
   "We had a little hiccup on the last pit stop…and we had to lean on Jimmie," crew chief Chad Knaus said.
    "We'll have to break down film and see just what went on. It's hard to pinpoint anything at the track."
   That hiccup left Johnson stuck back in ninth, and clean air is so important with these cars that it looked for a few minutes like Johnson was doomed.
   "I did feel we could get back to the front, if we had some long green flag runs," Knaus said. "If we had had short runs, we couldn't have gotten back up there."

Hey, look who's leading NASCAR's Sprint Cup standings: two-time champion Tony Stewart, who could become the first owner-driver to win the NASCAR title since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"We were actually only beat by two teams that also took four tires on that stop, so it was a very minor hiccup," Johnson said. "It was the four guys who only took two tires that really set us back."
   Johnson ripped through traffic, but Biffle and Stewart were long gone, and it wasn't until 10 miles to go that it looked like Johnson still had a chance.
   "When I came out eighth, I didn't want to make a mistake and tear the car up, like I did at Vegas," Johnson fretted.
   The move of the day looked like Johnson's late split-the-middle pass on long-struggling Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex Jr.
   "It was thrilling because I wasn't expecting them to get out of the gas and let me by, as a courtesy" Johnson said. "But I was wide open and when they both split apart and backed off the gas, I was, like, where do I go now?"
   Right up the middle.
    And Johnson was clawing at Stewart's bumper moments later, just as Stewart himself was working on Biffle.
   "I caught Greg as he was getting passed by Tony, so that helped me," Johnson said.
   "When I got up to third, I tried a couple of laps on the bottom (to try to get by Stewart, a notorious 'bottom-feeder' of a driver).
   "But then I made the decision to run the rest of the race up on the top, to keep clean air on the nose (and turn better in the corners).
   "It was more about clean air than anything."
    Knaus said "This is a day like crew chiefs dream of.
   "The thing I'm proudest of that the car responded to our adjustments. These cars frequently don't respond to changes."
    Car owner Rick Hendrick, who has missed a number of races this spring, was here for this one: "There at the end it was awfully exciting. I didn't know if we had enough time to get it done.
   "It was a good day overall. We just want all four teams to be competitive, and all four of our teams were competitive here.
   "I feel for Jeff, because he was so good in practice but lost the primary car. And Mark was right up front all day here; I'm not sure what happened at the end."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he's all business now, and he looked good in Sunday's 400 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


And Dale Earnhardt Jr., despite losing close friend and long-time crew chief Tony Eury Jr., pushed aside by Hendrick in a shakeup to create some fire on the Earnhardt team, came through the day strong too, running as high as third, in contention, before dropping back to finish 12th. 
   "I'm happier," Earnhardt said of his best run since Talladega.
   "I would like to have run better than 12th. We had the car really good there for most of the race.
    "We got it a little too loose…then got real tight trying to fix it.
    "Track position was real important, and we didn't have it at the end of the race.
   "But we had good communication (with new team leaders Brian Whitesell and Lance McGrew), and we made the car a little better, by lap 200.
    "So I was pretty happy and pleased. We need to keep doing that."
   Without Eury in his ear? "Well, it is a change of pace," Earnhardt said. "No better, no worse.
    "I'm going to miss working with Tony Jr. that closely.
     "Hopefully we get to work together indirectly throughout the rest of our careers, some way, somehow.
     "But working with Lance…I have worked with him before. He has a good personality. I think we are going to get along just fine."
    And Johnson and Knaus say that now having Eury running Hendrick's R&D operation will be a big plus for their own team, because it frees Knaus from testing chores. Eury will be handling next week's road course test with Johnson in South Carolina, in advance of the June 21st Sonoma race.
    "Tony is a great crew chief, and he can run the test for Chad, and we can go from there," Johnson said. "It has taken a lot of pressure off Chad this week. Testing takes a lot out of the crew chief and the crew."
   At Sonoma, the road course stop three weeks from now, Johnson and Knaus will see just what Eury has added to that side of the game, because road courses have not been a strong suit for Johnson.
   Despite the fierce finish here Sunday, Johnson said the car-of-tomorrow is still problematic at the tour's bigger tracks. "You have to look at the tracks where the COT runs well. And we have seen some awesome racing here. Last year we saw the Roush cars in three-car battle.
   "This track suits the COT car well.
   "But at the 1-1/2-mile tracks, we still have some things to do."





   Nice crowd, maybe 85,000, for Sunday's Autism Speaks 400, and a great afternoon at Dover International Speedway (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Hey Mike

Nice Piece.
Check your voicemail on your cell.

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