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Weekend Preview: Johnson poised to pounce on Dover opportunity

September 28, 2012, NASCAR Wire Service, NASCAR.com



Weekend Preview: Johnson poised to pounce on Dover opportunity
Also: Sadler regains Nationwide lead from Stenhouse, Truck points race tightens

Jimmie Johnson hasn't called his shot, but the five-time Sprint Cup Series champ has reason for hope at one of his best tracks this weekend.

Johnson, the series points leader, leads the list of favorites at Dover International Speedway in Sunday's AAA 400 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN), round 3 in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup postseason.

The Monster Mile's punishing nature has so far spared Johnson, who is tied with NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Bobby Allison atop the track's all-time win list with seven Dover victories. The most recent of those Dover wins came in June, when Johnson led 289 of 400 laps to pad his series-best driver rating at the Delaware track.

"So far, it's been a great track for us," said Johnson, who's won four of the last seven events on the concrete speedway. "... If we can run up front and control the race and control who we're racing around, hopefully we can distance ourselves."

Johnson at Dover

Last seven races
YearStartFinish
201119
201162
2010516
201011
200981
200911

Johnson grabbed the series points lead on the consistent strength of two straight runner-up finishes to open the Chase. He currently leads Brad Keselowski, the winner at Chicago, by one point and Denny Hamlin, the winner in New Hampshire, by seven.

Hamlin's triumph last weekend resonated because of his spirited drive from 32nd position to a dominant victory, just seven days after boldly predicting a win through his Twitter account. The confidence Hamlin had at New Hampshire may not be so strong at Dover, where he has just two top-five finishes in 13 career efforts there, including a nondescript 18th-place finish in June.

"I think the concrete surface itself just throws me for a loop and I don't have a good feel," Hamlin said. "I don't know. We got better at Bristol [also concrete], so hopefully what we learned there will transfer over to Dover."

Though no driver has been mathematically eliminated from championship contention, Jeff Gordon -- currently in last place in the 12-driver postseason field -- suggests he needs to convert a Hail Mary pass, starting this weekend. Gordon finished third behind Hamlin and teammate Johnson at New Hampshire, but still sits 45 points off the top.

"It's still going to take a miracle for us to win the championship," Gordon said after last Sunday's finish. "I mean, you've got guys like Jimmie, Keselowski and Hamlin; I mean, these are guys that have been strong all year. You know, Jimmie's won five championships. These guys are not going to make huge mistakes. But we have to go and race every race. There's a lot of racing and a lot of different tracks that a lot can happen at."

Sadler surges back in Nationwide

One week removed from the Nationwide Series points lead, Elliott Sadler is back in the No. 1 spot. With six races left in his tightly contested battle with defending series champ Ricky Stenhouse Jr., his perch is far from secure.

Sadler aims to strengthen the pursuit of his first NASCAR title this weekend in Saturday's OneMain Financial 200 (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Dover International Speedway. He capitalized on Stenhouse's pit-road misfortune last weekend at Kentucky to regain the series lead by four points, but left the Bluegrass State feeling he missed the chance to build on that cushion.

Another opportunity may present itself at Dover, where Sadler won the pole for the fall 200-miler last season.

"I think we're going to be really good this weekend ...," Sadler said. "We've just got to go do our thing. We feel like we've got a lot of speed in our cars right now. We've just got to put all 200 laps together and hopefully be there at the end."

Sadler and Stenhouse are the only two drivers to have led the Nationwide points this season, and a renewal of their 2011 title fight isn't out of the question. The two rivals clashed at Bristol last month, causing an angry Sadler to suggest that hard racing would be the norm for the title contenders from here on out.

During a Tuesday news conference at Richard Childress Racing headquarters, Sadler said those rules still apply.

"We knew he would run good, but we didn't quite think he would be in the position he is in. "

--RICHARD CHILDRESS

"There's nothing to talk about," Sadler said. "We have always raced each other with respect, last year and this year, and I felt like he took advantage of that respect at Bristol. No, it hasn't blown over at all with me. We've still got six races left to go, and we're going to continue to race each other hard and we'll see where it takes us from there.

"He understands that he's got to outrun me and I understand I've got to outrun him. We're both so fast every week that we're going to be around each other and we're going to race each other hard and race each other clean, but probably more taking than giving when you get down to this part of the season. But that's good. That's good for racing."

While the 1-2 punch of Sadler and Stenhouse has attracted the lion's share of attention, RCR teammate Austin Dillon has closed in. Dillon moved to just 19 points off Sadler's lead with his victory last weekend at Kentucky, bolstering his bid for a title in his rookie Nationwide season.

A Ty at the top: Dillon leads Truck Series

For Ty Dillon, heading to unfamiliar territory has become an old habit this season, his first in the Camping World Truck Series. So far, it hasn't hurt the 20-year-old driver one bit.

Dillon carries a narrow points lead into the truck tour's next stop, Saturday night's Smith's 350 (8:30 p.m. ET, SPEED) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. While Dillon has raced on a handful of 1.5-mile tracks this season, it's another all-new facility for him.

"I've had zero experience at Vegas, so I'm looking forward to it. All you can do it look forward to it," Dillon said. "We've been fairly successful this year, being that it's our rookie year and pretty much all the tracks we've never been to. We're going to hit it hard, look over all our notes, watch past races and do the best we can to be prepared when we get there."

Dillon has commanded the points lead for two straight weeks, logging a runner-up effort and third-place finish on the heels of his breakthrough truck series victory Aug. 31 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. But his lead is a tenuous one, with James Buescher -- who possesses a series-best four wins this season -- just four points back.

Even with the relative lack of experience, team owner and grandfather Richard Childress says the younger Dillon has exceeded expectations.

"We knew he would run good, but we didn't quite think he would be in the position he is in," Childress said. "I felt he would win a race or two, and he's been in contention to win two or three races. He's really a smart racer. I think Buescher's going to be tough to beat and there's a couple other ones right there with him, but I think he'll give 'em a good run."

Action sports star Travis Pastrana, who has made nine Nationwide starts this season, is scheduled to make his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series debut Saturday at Las Vegas. He'll drive a ThorSport Racing Toyota as a teammate to Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter.