Jimmie Johnson scored his second win of the season with a dominant performance in the Autism Speaks 400 at Dover International Raceway.
The reigning champion was the class of the field all day long, holding on to the lead for most of the distance after passing Greg Biffle on lap 49. None of his rivals were able to threaten him on pure pace, and only strategy moves prevented Johnson from easily running away with victory.
During the penultimate caution of the day, which came out for debris with 37 laps remaining, Johnson took on four new tyres as did Kurt Busch from second place, while a number of drivers led by Biffle and Tony Stewart changed only right-side tyres, dropping the Hendrick driver down from the lead.
A delay with the left-front tyre on his last stop put Johnson down in ninth place but following a further caution with 26 to go, Johnson picked off rivals one by one until he caught up with the leading duo of Biffle and Stewart. The latter took the lead from the Roush Fenway driver with nine laps to go and a lap later Johnson took second.
In the last seven laps Stewart tried to stay ahead by changing his line, preventing Johnson from running as high on the banking as he had been before. His strategy worked for a while, but on the penultimate lap Stewart left a lane on the outside and Johnson made the most of it, recovering the lead at last and pulling away to his fourth win at Dover.
"We obviously had a great racecar all day long and I've got to thank [crew-chief] Chad [Knaus] for that," Johnson said. "The strategy in the end was kind of goofy. We could've stayed out, changed two or four [tyres]. Fortunately I had such a good car and I could run around the top. I got up there into third and started to catch those guys down.
"My hat's off to Tony Stewart. That was one heck of a race. I had to drive so much over my head to get by him."
Stewart could not celebrate his first win in a championship race as an owner, but his second place allowed him to move in the lead of the championship, marking the first time an owner/driver has done so since Alan Kulwicki went on to win the Cup title driving his own cars in 1992.
"That's everything I had and we didn't leave anything on the table," Stewart said. "We just got out-run there. [Johnson] was flying man. When I saw him get to third and started running us down it was like 'man we've got to get by [Biffle]. I don't know if we would've got by him any sooner if we would've been able to hold him off but it was sure fun trying."
"I'm pretty excited about the points' lead. That's awesome. I haven't been the points leader for a long time."
Biffle recovered from almost being a lap down due to an untimely caution flag following a pitstop early on, but despite leading 41 laps, he never really had anything for Johnson. His team-mate Matt Kenseth, who also led a few laps after jumping Johnson in the pits, was also unable to stay ahead for long and he crossed the chequered flag in fourth place.
"Once I got out front, I was just way too loose there at the end and couldn't hold off the 20 or the 48," said Biffle. "If I would have been a little bit tighter, I know I would have been able to drive off pretty good, but, it's unfortunate."
Kurt Busch, who looked a challenger to Johnson close to the end of the race, vanished following the final restart and he was fifth in the end. Behind him Kasey Kahne showed improved pace in his first race with the new Dodge engine, followed by Carl Edwards, who ran a quiet race to seventh place.
Ryan Newman, who also changed only two tyres on his last stop, was eighth in the end and moved up to fifth place in the drivers' standings, rounding up a good points day for Stewart Haas Racing. Casey Mears matched his best result of the season with ninth as the best Richard Childress driver, while Mark Martin completed the top ten.
Dale Earnahrdt Jr saw signs of improvement in his first weekend with Lance McGrew as his crew chief. He ran as high as third at one point but the handling on his car was not at its best in the final portion of the race and he finished 12th.
Jeff Gordon, who complained of a sore back after the race, struggled for pace all day after starting from the back of the field following his crash in qualifying. His 26th place allowed Stewart to jump him in the standings, losing the lead for the first time since Talladega.
The race had started with fears of a tyre debacle, following incidents with the same specification of Goodyears in the Truck series race on Saturday. NASCAR showed the caution flag for the first time on lap 30 for that reason but there were few incidents in the end.
Juan Pablo Montoya, who led the race for five laps in the early going, suffered three different problems on right-side tyres, although only one of them was for excessive wear. Also suffering from tyre trouble was Denny Hamlin, who crashed after his right-front blew up on lap 230 while he was running second.
Pos Driver Car Laps 1. Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 400 2. Tony Stewart Chevrolet 400 3. Greg Biffle Ford 400 4. Matt Kenseth Ford 400 5. Kurt Busch Dodge 400 6. Kasey Kahne Dodge 400 7. Carl Edwards Ford 400 8. Ryan Newman Chevrolet 400 9. Casey Mears Chevrolet 400 10. Mark Martin Chevrolet 400 11. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 400 12. Dale Earnhardt Jr Chevrolet 400 13. Sam Hornish Jr Dodge 400 14. Jamie McMurray Ford 400 15. Joey Logano Toyota 400 16. Jeff Burton Chevrolet 400 17. Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 400 18. David Reutimann Toyota 400 19. Reed Sorenson Dodge 400 20. Marcos Ambrose Toyota 400 21. Martin Truex Jr Chevrolet 399 22. Regan Smith Chevrolet 399 23. Kyle Busch Toyota 399 24. David Ragan Ford 399 25. Brian Vickers Toyota 399 26. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 398 27. Elliott Sadler Dodge 398 28. Bobby Labonte Ford 397 29. AJ Allmendinger Dodge 396 30. Juan Montoya Chevrolet 395 31. David Stremme Dodge 370 32. Paul Menard Ford 363 33. Robby Gordon Toyota 282 34. John Andretti Chevrolet 253 35. Michael Waltrip Toyota 250 36. Denny Hamlin Toyota 232 37. Scott Speed Toyota 118 38. Joe Nemechek Toyota 67 39. Dave Blaney Toyota 66 40. Mike Bliss Dodge 56 41. Mike Skinner Toyota 51 42. Tony Raines Chevrolet 42 43. David Gilliland Chevrolet 38