NASCAR Barometer: Johnson Rules Dover

NASCAR Barometer: Johnson Rules Dover

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Sunday's FedEx 400 was somewhat of a departure from the norm at Dover International Speedway. The race opened with long stretches of green flag running that enabled the fastest cars to put those less fortunate down some laps and out of contention. It was some of the longest green flag stretches to start a race we've seen this season. That slimming of the pack left just 11 cars on the lead lap at the end of the afternoon.

From the outset it appeared as though one of the Joe Gibbs Racing cars would run away to victory. The most likely candidate was Denny Hamlin, who jumped from the pole to lead the first two opening stints before Martin Truex Jr. tracked him down both times. Slowly making his way forward from the 14th starting position was Jimmie Johnson, though. The no. 48 already claimed nine wins at the concrete oval, arguably the best driver at the track. In the end he worked his way into the top runners, and made no mistakes in the final two restarts to hold off the rest of the charging pack and claim an unprecedented 10th victory at the track.

UPGRADE

Jimmie Johnson - Despite starting rather far back for a contender at Dover, Johnson was able to pull himself forward in no time. By the time the race was in its closing laps the No. 48 had firmly established himself as a contender, and he held together the fastest car on track through two

Sunday's FedEx 400 was somewhat of a departure from the norm at Dover International Speedway. The race opened with long stretches of green flag running that enabled the fastest cars to put those less fortunate down some laps and out of contention. It was some of the longest green flag stretches to start a race we've seen this season. That slimming of the pack left just 11 cars on the lead lap at the end of the afternoon.

From the outset it appeared as though one of the Joe Gibbs Racing cars would run away to victory. The most likely candidate was Denny Hamlin, who jumped from the pole to lead the first two opening stints before Martin Truex Jr. tracked him down both times. Slowly making his way forward from the 14th starting position was Jimmie Johnson, though. The no. 48 already claimed nine wins at the concrete oval, arguably the best driver at the track. In the end he worked his way into the top runners, and made no mistakes in the final two restarts to hold off the rest of the charging pack and claim an unprecedented 10th victory at the track.

UPGRADE

Jimmie Johnson - Despite starting rather far back for a contender at Dover, Johnson was able to pull himself forward in no time. By the time the race was in its closing laps the No. 48 had firmly established himself as a contender, and he held together the fastest car on track through two final restarts to claim a 10th win at the track. It was another day of significant performance for the No. 48 team, and its run at the championship at the end of the season may worry many in the field. Looking ahead to next week, Johnson is a three-time winner at Pocono Raceway with his latest coming in the spring 2013. He has two top-10 finishes at the track in the last four races.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Starting Sunday's race from the front row gave Truex all the confidence necessary to race strongly again last week. He rode behind pole sitter Hamlin for the opening laps, but used traffic to get his first taste of the lead. He led the most laps in the race, but was cycled backward due to pit stops late and was balked by Kasey Kahne on the final restart to finish sixth. That finish extended his streak of finishing inside the top 10, but left the team feeling like they could have achieved more given their pace. Next week is another story, and like most weeks in 2015, don't worry about Truex's past history at Pocono. He is driving much better than he ever has in his career and should find Victory Lane soon.

Kyle Larson -
After such a strong rookie season, much was expected from Larson in 2015. He hasn't lived up to those expectations quite yet, but his performance in Dover gave some hope for the future. Larson had a strong qualifying effort, and raced among the top 10 all afternoon. When the final laps were complete the No. 42, in his second-year at the track, scored his best finish of the season. It was his third top-10 of the year. Larson qualified on pole at Pocono's fall race last season, and has an average finish of eighth. While he should be a driver capable of outperforming the second part of the year, he could have some additional success this week in Pennsylvania, too.

Kasey Kahne -
Though much wasn't expected of the No. 5 in Dover, the driver impressed and drove to his first top-5 finish this season since Phoenix. Kahne showed virtually no speed in practice and qualifying, which for him typically means a long and difficult race. That wasn't the case last weekend, though. Kahne did not lead any laps, but confidently forced his way into the top runners and even had a chance to challenge for the win on the final restart. He couldn't match Johnson, though, and settled for a very good points day instead. Things have been good for Kahne at Pocono, too. He won there as recently as 2013, and has three top-10 finishes in his last five races there.

DOWNGRADE

Carl Edwards - One week after standing on top of the NASCAR world with his win in the Coca-Cola 600, Edwards found himself digging out of a hole in Dover. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver left his pit stall too early and incurred a penalty mid-race when the crew couldn't remove a wrench in time. That was just the first penalty for the team, though. The second was for speeding, which seriously ruined his chances for consecutive top finishes. The team now has to look forward and build on what they've learned. Edwards has two wins at Pocono, but the most recent was in 2008. He wasn't able to finish in the top 20 in either race there last season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Becoming the first driver to have to start at the rear of the field due to changing his rear gear in NASCAR history, Earnhardt found himself in a tough situation last week. Dover is a notorious venue from which to come from behind, but Earnhardt made a valiant effort. The No. 88 worked his way forward after that start, only to run afoul of the pit road speed limit. As a result of that miscue he had to serve a drive-through penalty that put him behind yet again. Earnhardt could get back to winning ways at Pocono next week, though. He won both races there last season, and shouldn't feel the effects of last week's disappointment for too long.

Kyle Busch -
Busch spent more than 90% of the laps run in Sunday's race inside the top-five runners until he lost control lapping a slower car. The speed Busch carried into that turn was just too much, and he drifted high and collected Brian Scott, ending both of their afternoons. Busch has definitely proven that he is physically capable of running at the top despite missing the first races of the season, and his main task now is to score a win in the races before the Chase. He has never won at Pocono, and failed to finish in the top-10 there in both of last season's races. Still, Busch continues to prove he can win nearly any week.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin and his No. 11 team dominated practice and qualifying in Dover, and took a commanding lead from the very beginning of Sunday's race. Throughout the distance on Sunday he was a threat to anyone who held the lead or had a hope of winning. Unfortunately, he lost control on a late restart and wasn't able to save his car before taking out Kurt Busch and kissing the wall. The contact ruined any chance he had of finishing strongly, and sent him straight to the pits for extensive repairs. It was a day full of potential that ended with nothing more than a 21st-place finish. Hamlin is a four-time winner at Pocono with an average finish of 11.9 at the track.

Kurt Busch -
Busch was an innocent bystander Sunday when Hamlin lost control, went spinning, and tagged the rear of the No. 41. The contact pushed Busch into the wall, the damage from which caused a flat tire as he tried to return to the field before the final restart. Up to that point Busch had driven a bulletproof race and was in contention for another top-5 finish on Sunday, but his day ended with contact due to someone else's mistake. He was classified in the 31st position when the distance was complete. Busch has three top-10 finishes in his last five Pocono outings, including a pair of third-place finishes. His performances in recent weeks have been stout, but he'll need to overcome last week's disappointment.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Aric Almirola - Almirola is a wildly underrated driver most weeks, and that became evident yet again last weekend in Dover. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver, a former winner in the series, was nowhere to be found among the contenders throughout the weekend, but romped to a top-5 finish late on Sunday. The finish was Almirola's first top-10 of the season, but he consistently finishes inside the top-20, and often in the top-15. While Pocono could be a challenge for him, he continues to prove that he is a driver that provides value to fantasy rosters. He has two top-20 Pocono finishes, but his success last week could propel him to his first top-15, or maybe top-10, at the track.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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