Johnson joins more elite company

ByBob Pockrass Via <a Href="http://espn.go.com/" Title="espn" Class="espn_sc_byline">espn </a>
July 20, 2016, 3:40 AM

&#151; -- DOVER, Del. -- If Jimmie Johnson continues to have a season in which he doesn't appear to have dominant cars yet still wins races, then NASCAR should just get the pedestal ready for him to join Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the sport's seven-time champions.

Even when he's not leading a ton of laps, Johnson has enjoyed a 2015 season in which he still ends up as the happiest guy in the joint.

Johnson led the final 23 laps -- the only laps he led all day -- in capturing the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway. It marked his 10th win at the track but the first in which he led fewer than 134 laps.

The number of laps doesn't matter all that much. Victory Lane is just as sweet and the record books don't say how many laps he led when talking about drivers who have won 10 races at a track. No other current driver on the Sprint Cup circuit can claim such a feat, and only four others in NASCAR history can do so.

Richard Petty won at least 10 races at five tracks (Martinsville, North Wilkesboro, Richmond, Rockingham and Daytona), Darrell Waltrip at three (Bristol, Martinsville and North Wilkesboro), Dale Earnhardt at Talladega and David Pearson at Darlington.

"I'm almost in shock that we're there," Johnson said. "Seventy-four race wins, 10 here -- you can't dream that big.

"I'm just blown away and honored by the success [and] what we've done with our opportunity and honored to have a shot at history -- and then the 10 wins here."

It wasn't a lucky win in the sense that Johnson did have a top-5 car. But everything fell Johnson's way for that 74th win. Harvick's track bar had broken during the race, and that impacted his ability on the final restart.  Martin Truex Jr. led 131 laps -- the third consecutive week in which he led the most laps -- but ended up sixth after losing spots on the green-white-checkered restart.

Denny Hamlin, who sat on the pole, led 118 laps but saw the handling slip away in the middle of the race and then got tapped and wrecked by an apologetic Clint Bowyer with 14 laps remaining while battling for fifth. Kyle Busch, who appeared to get stronger throughout the race, ended up getting collected by the apologetic Brian Scott.

Johnson didn't have to make any apologies. He had a fast car in practice but started 14th after a mediocre qualifying effort Friday.

"Any of the top five cars had a chance to win today," Johnson said. "It seemed like that last run or two we got strung out a little bit more than we had all day long. Up until that point, up until maybe that last set of tires we were on, that kind of went through my mind, like, 'Man, I'm doing all that I can, 78 [Truex's car] has been leading, he's right there.' ... I'm like, 'Maybe it's just meant to be this way [that I won't win].' "

Even though he started that far back, anyone who has been to Dover knows to watch out for the 48.

"This is a good race track for them," said Harvick, the second-place finisher who was passed by Johnson with 17 laps remaining in regulation. "They had everything line up for them and had a good car. ... He is just good here."

The 1-mile concrete track totally fits Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus. It often is slick and requires good adjustments as the rubber builds on the track and often additional racing grooves come into play. The elevation change and banking as cars dig into Turns 1 and 3 probably gives him a little bit of a feel of his old off-road days.

As much as he loves the place, he couldn't make it all work well Friday in qualifying, which continues to be a thorn for Johnson and impacted his ability to lead laps. He has only three top-10 starts at non-restrictor-plate tracks this year.

Johnson has failed to lead a lap in six of the 12 races this season. He sits third in points, behind Truex, who has no wins, and Harvick, who has two.

But Johnson's eight top-5 finishes only rank behind Harvick (nine) this season.

"I'm actually fairly pleased with the way that we've been performing," Knaus said. "We've got to do a better job on Friday.

"I feel as though the race starts on Friday, and we've really done pretty pitiful on Fridays and got to do significantly better there and we're working really hard on it."

The performance Friday almost bit Johnson. He could get into that top five easily but needed all the cautions and pit strategy to fall into place. Harvick and Johnson were the only lead-lap cars who didn't pit prior to the Lap 384 restart. They were able to hold off the rest of the field who had fresher tires.

Johnson just drove the wheels off the thing at the end of a hot, steamy day on the Dover concrete. Known as one of the best athletes on the circuit, he had gone on a 52-mile bicycle ride Saturday. He was in shape for this race.

Other drivers have their training regimens, but a handful of drivers spent Saturday meeting with NASCAR brass about safety and competition issues.

His teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of the more vocal drivers and obviously one whose family legacy gives him a big voice, was part of that group. Johnson was not.

"I don't think I was invited to that meeting," Johnson said. "I haven't won enough races or championships."

Johnson laughed when he said that. He isn't afraid to give his opinions, but he's more apt to go out of his way to get a workout done than to go lobby NASCAR.

That attitude has suited him just fine. He achieved another bit of history Sunday: For the 11th time in 14 career Sprint Cup seasons, Johnson has posted at least four wins. Only one driver has had more: Petty with 16.

"Insane," Johnson said in Victory Lane. "What a long, hard-fought day to get to the front."

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