Photo by Associated Press.
Originally Published: May 14, 2016 5:46 p.m.
DOVER, Del. — Jimmie Johnson fell in love with Dover the first time he turned a lap at the track in the late 1990s.
He can’t quit it, even when it left him with a broken car part.
Johnson’s 2015 championship hopes were over at Dover not because of a wreck, a blown engine or a mistake on pit road.
It was a busted right rear axle seal that sent the No. 48 into the garage and knocked him out of title contention. Johnson’s bid for a record-tying seventh championship came to a shocking end when he finished 41st and failed to advance to the second round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
The faulty finish was a rare misstep at his favorite track. Johnson has a record 10 wins at Dover, dominating the mile concrete track like no other driver.
But the last race here was the worst one for Johnson — and he’s tried to focus on the 10 wins rather than the one that got away.
“You’re going to have bad experiences at all tracks,” Johnson said. “Drivers are going to make mistakes even if it’s at their favorite track. It doesn’t matter. My love for this track ... it’s still just as cool now as it ever has been.”
Johnson won the spring race last year at Dover, placing him among a small group of drivers who have won 10 races at a single track. Johnson joined NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty (Martinsville-15, North Wilkesboro-15, Richmond-13, Rockingham-11, Daytona-10), Darrell Waltrip (Bristol-12, Martinsville-11, North Wilkesboro-10), Dale Earnhardt (Talladega-10) and David Pearson (Darlington-10) in that group.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver swept Dover in 2002 and 2009 and also won races in 2005, 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2014.
“We definitely get fired up knowing this one is coming up,” Johnson said.
Rain wiped out qualifying, so Johnson will start 21st Sunday based on his practice speed.
“We didn’t have the speed we wanted, (so) it adds actually more frustration than it would at a normal track,” he said. “Because we are like ‘man this is our place this is where we run well, why are we off?’ It has many pros, but there are some cons that exist with a track that you’ve been so good at.”
Johnson’s been good — great, mostly — at just about every track and has wins this season at Atlanta and Fontana that already earned him a berth in the Chase.
“Well, he sure has won a lot. That guy is doing pretty good in this sport,” Team Penske driver Joey Logano said.
Kyle Busch seemed just fine on the track without crew chief Adam Stevens in his ear. Stevens was slapped with a one-race suspension for violating the lug nut policy during the team’s win at Kansas last weekend.
Busch topped Saturday’s first practice leaderboard, hitting 157.839 mph in the No. 18 Toyota. Perhaps a sign of what’s ahead on Sunday, JGR drivers swept the top three spots in the first practice. Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards followed Busch.
Hamlin kept the fast speeds rolling in the second practice, leading the field at 157.329.
Kevin Harvick, the pole sitter, was second and Busch third.
Tony Stewart stood on his car and raised his arms in triumph as confetti fluttered around victory line.
Stewart was thrilled after he surged past Juan Pablo Montoya on June 2, 2013, in one of the great races at Dover and earned his 48th career Cup win.
And his last to this point.
The three-time Cup champion is closing in on the three-year mark of his last victory, a staggering mark for one of racing’s all-time greats. Stewart had won at least one race in every NASCAR season from 1999 to 2013 — he won three times at Dover — and seemed like he would continue his run of dominance.
“It’s been such a tough year,” Stewart said after his win ended a small slump.
He had no idea how much tougher his personal and professional life would become.
Stewart followed the Dover win with four top-five finishes over his next seven races, a season shortened by broken leg suffered in a sprint car crash. A year later, he missed three races while in seclusion after his car struck and killed a fellow driver at a dirt track in New York. Stewart missed the first eight races of this season with a fractured vertebra suffered in an all-terrain vehicle accident in January.
His winless streak has reached 80 races.