DOVER, Del. — Jimmie Johnson is back on top, shaking off a poor finish in the Chase opener to take the pole at Dover International Speedway on Friday.
The four-time defending Cup champion turned a lap of 155.736 mph at one of his favorite tracks. Johnson has five career wins on the 1-mile concrete oval — one shy of his best at Charlotte and Martinsville — and swept the races here last year. He was 16th earlier this year.
“This is certainly a step in the right direction for momentum,” Johnson said. “Last weekend, we ran much better than where we finished. It stinks that we finished where we did, but there is nothing we can really do about it.”
Johnson finished 25th on Sunday at New Hampshire. It was the worst showing for any driver in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship and dumped him from second to seventh in points. He’s now sixth following Clint Bowyer’s penalty.
He rebounded at Dover with his second pole of the season and 25th of his career.
Johnson’s not in an ideal spot as he chases his fifth straight title, but it’s far from over. If any driver can rebound, it’s the cool Californian. Johnson was a season-worst 39th to open the 2006 Chase at New Hampshire. He had one win and four seconds over a five-race span in the Chase that let him bring home the championship.
“It’s not what you want, but there are still nine races left and no time to panic,” Johnson said. “We don’t need to change what we’re doing. We know we’re a great race team. We’ve just got to go race for this thing and I think in this year’s Chase, every guy in the Chase is ready to race. We know that we are.”
Mark Martin, who qualified third, had his time thrown out because the right rear shock exceeded the maximum allowable gas pressure. He was dropped to 42nd for Sunday’s race. There were no further penalties.
That makes for two inspection issues in two Chase weekends.
Bowyer, whose championship run was crushed by serious penalties after flunking inspection, starts 24th. He was docked 150 points after Sunday’s win at New Hampshire and dropped from second to 12th in the standings. He is appealing the ruling.
Non-Chase drivers AJ Allmendinger and Martin Truex Jr. start second and third, respectively. Points leader Denny Hamlin moved up a spot to fourth.
While Johnson has thrived at Dover, Hamlin is 0 for 9 with only two top-five finishes. His average finish is 22.8 — only Daytona at 23.1 is worse for the Joe Gibbs Racing contender.
“I think our chances of winning this race are probably slim and I think we know that,” Hamlin said before taking his lap. “This is just a track that really challenges me, but I think we can go out there and we can run third, fourth, fifth, realistically.”
Greg Biffle (sixth) and Kurt Busch (eighth) and Carl Edwards (10th) were the only other Chase drivers to make the top 10. Kyle Busch was 11th, Matt Kenseth 14th, Jeff Gordon 15th, Tony Stewart 25th, Jeff Burton 27th and Kevin Harvick 33rd.
Hamlin would love for a strong finish to put some distance between him and the rest of the Chase field. He got an unexpected boost toward his first title when Bowyer was stripped of points, and he now leads Harvick by 45.
“My goal before the Chase started was to be within 80 points when I left Dover,” Hamlin said. “My goals have shifted. I hope I’m much closer to the front than that now.”