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An odd Sunday at Dover...well, for everyone but Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson

   It was a beautiful blue-sky Sunday at Dover, but Jeff Gordon drove the 400 like he was lost somewhere in the wild blue yonder (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    By Mike Mulhern

   DOVER, Del.
   The Ford mystery continues, and Chip Ganassi's guys hit a bump in the road that could hurt their title playoff chances even more. But there's no mistaking who's got the hot iron as the stock car tour heads to Charlotte for two weeks, with the All-Star race and the 600: Joe Gibbs' guys and Jimmie Johnson.
   Johnson and Kyle Busch had the cars to beat in Sunday's 400, much stronger than any of their challengers. So when Johnson caught a pit road speeding penalty with 40 miles to go, the rest of the day was all Busch. And no green-white-checkered or overtime to give his rivals a break.
   Oddly the event was not filled with its usual assortment of hard crashes. And the crowd, perhaps generously estimated at 88,000, was clearly off, showing the unexpected effect of the tour date change from early June to mid-May, when schools are still in session.
   With Johnson's pit road bobble, Kevin Harvick padded his Sprint Cup tour points lead, and Busch leapfrogged to second.
   Harvick, in a not-so-good mood lately, he says because he's not had good results at the tour's May tracks, had another good day, finishing seventh, following up Darlington's sixth.
   "Darlington, Charlotte, and Dover are probably our three biggest struggles," Harvick says. "And the month of May has always been tough for us.
   "But so far we have three top-10s.
    "So we just have to do that one time in Charlotte, and then we can go back to being comfortable at the tracks we like going to.
    "Our cars are just way faster this year.  We have to get a little better on pit road. But our cars are 180 degrees from where they were last year, and it makes my job a lot easier."

  A championship trio here, Kevin Harvick (R), Jimmie Johnson (C) and Denny Hamlin -- all grins before the start of the Dover 400 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Teammate Jeff Burton, runner-up again, in another near-miss, in what has really been a very solid spring for him and crew chief Todd Berrier, says the Goodyear tire compound affected the race, because the tires shed a lot of rubber (typically an engineering tactic to shed heat).
   "There was a tremendous amount of rubber build-up on the track, and when you run through that stuff, it really would upset the car," Burton said.
   "It's hard to run through it; you've got to run around it, or run under it, or try to straddle it.
    "It's a good tire.  It was just hard to pass because the way that rubber is. It kind of makes the track a single lane off the corner.
    "I don't remember rubber building up quite this much here before...and I thought that had a pretty big impact on the race.
    "The track is so rubbered-up that if you got out of the groove you'd all but wreck. It was crazy how much rubber was on the track."
    Again was close to a win. His last tour victory was in the fall of 2008.
   "With a little luck we could have won...but we probably got a little more than we deserved," Burton said.
   For Tony Stewart this season has 180 from last year too, but in the wrong way. Last season, his first as owner-driver, he was on top of the world. This season he's been struggling. Sunday's ninth? "Well, it's slowed the bleeding," Stewart said. "It's definitely a step in the right direction."
   And what in the world happened to Jeff Gordon?
   This is his sponsor's hometown, and Gordon usually contends here. But this time he was mired back in the pack, though pulling out an 11th.
   "Days like this are way more frustrating than not winning when we have the car capable of winning," Gordon griped.
   "This, man, was a struggle. Just trying to make the car better constantly...trying to get track position...trying to work our way to the front.
    "Nothing we did ever really worked."
    And that means homework, because this is a key track in the fall championship playoffs.
    Frustration? It's come in many colors for Gordon, who has led over 1,100 laps since his last tour win a year ago and finished second eight times.
    Worried? Well, teammate Jimmie Johnson says history shows that teams that run well at Dover typically run well at Charlotte too.
    The tire compound, Gordon said, echoing Burton, was a factor: "You've got to be careful what you wish for. We've been trying to talk Goodyear into laying rubber on the track (concrete doesn't typically rubber-in very well)....and it laid so much rubber down that it actually made for new challenges...kind of a single-groove track."

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  Jeff Burton (R) listens intently as crew chief Todd Berrier lays out a game plan (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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