News & Media

Johnson favorite regardless of practice times

September 28, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM,

DOVER, Del. -- Sprint Cup Series points leader Jimmie Johnson couldn't be in a better place for Sunday's AAA 400 at Dover.

The 12 Chase contenders were all over the chart in Friday's Happy Hour practice. Jeff Gordon topped the practice session at 155.743 mph, while reigning champion Tony Stewart was a distant 44th at 150.464 mph.


Practice 1
2.C. Bowyer156.59722.989
3.D. Hamlin156.56322.994
4.M. Martin156.32523.029
5.G. Biffle156.31123.031
2.J. Logano154.58623.288
3.J. Johnson154.57923.289
4.Ku. Busch154.31423.329
5.D. Stremme153.26323.489

But when it comes to race day, there will be only one clear-cut favorite

Jimmie Johnson has been dominant at Dover, winning four of the last seven Cup races on the concrete oval including June's FedEx 400 in which he led 289 of 400 laps.

Even when he doesn't win at Dover, Johnson comes close. He settled for second at last year's AAA 400. In his 21 career starts at Dover, Johnson has seven victories and 15 top-10 finishes.

In the last 15 races at Dover, Johnson easily owns the best driver rating (120.6, Matt Kenseth is next at 110.5) and leads in virtually every category including laps led.

Johnson, who leads the point standings by one point over Brad Keselowski and seven over Denny Hamlin, was only 25th-fastest in the morning practice. But when it came time to turn it up in Happy Hour, Johnson improved to third-best at 154.579 mph.

The five-time Cup champion says he likes the slope and the symmetry of the high-banked mile.

"Out of all the oval tracks we race on, this one is most similar to my off-road background," Johnson says. "The drop off into the corner, the way the rubber lays down, you have to select a different line through the turn -- it kind of reminds me of dirt racing. Then, you climb back up that hill and jump onto the straightaway -- and then go do it again and again and again

"We're definitely excited to be here. The stats are very good for myself and this team here. It's a track that I've enjoyed racing at from [my] very first lap in an ASA car."

Even so, Johnson says his crew chief Chad Knaus and his team take nothing for granted, even on a track where success seems to come naturally.

"What's confusing is that this track does change quite a bit," Johnson says. "With the tire that we've had for the last couple of years, it lays a lot of rubber down -- and the way your car handles on a clean track during practice is far different than what you have in the race.

"In practice [for previous races] even though we've won here, I can't say those practice sessions went as smoothly as we had hoped. You really have to fall back on experience and keep an open mind about the new pieces you bring."

Hamlin, who took advantage of a dominant car at New Hampshire last week, says drivers can't worry about how strong Johnson might be this week

"We're not going to control how they run, so really, our focus can't be on them," said Hamlin, who had been slightly faster than Johnson in Happy Hour but settled for 17th on the chart at 152.775 mph. "If we can get our car good, we can beat him here.

"I'm not [thinking], 'Let's not give up so many points to the 48.' That's not my focus this weekend. Our focus is ourselves and knowing that if I've got the balance that I want and the car that I need, we can win -- just like we can [at] any other race track. I think, we could be in the hunt for a top-five, easily."

Toyotas were fast all day on Friday, posting five of the top-five speeds in the morning practice, led by Chase drivers Martin Truex Jr. (157.082), Clint Bowyer (156.597) and Hamlin (156.563). Joey Logano's Toyota was second-quickest in Happy Hour at 154.586.

Not so fast was Matt Kenseth, a two-time winner at Dover, who was faster than only four other drivers in the morning session and 38nd in Happy Hour at 151.241.