JJ restores order in topsy-turvy season
DOVER, Del. -- Ohhhhh, noooooooo
NASCAR is back to a matter of Jimmie Johnson versus all the rest.
Just like that.
Just when you thought a spicier NASCAR was emerging, with new twists of interest every week or two -- Mark Martin wins two out of four, then David Reutimann wins the Coca-Cola 600, then Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. are split up, then Kyle Busch barbs that move -- well, here comes Johnson back to dominance.
Actually, dominance is too weak a word for what he showed in Sunday's Autism Speaks 400. Johnson just flat overwhelmed everybody else, every which way.
I mean, the guy had won only one race before Sunday -- and that one on his personal slot-car track, Martinsville.
He'd become just a face in the crowd. Four-peat talk could wait 'til later, maybe much later, as Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus stumbled -- for them -- through the early season.
Then Johnson and Knaus put their No. 48 Chevrolet on a rail at Dover International Speedway, leading 298 of the 400 laps. And they didn't just lead, they rolled out to margins of 5, 6, 7 seconds at times.
Not that they didn't make a show of it at the end. Did they ever.
Johnson had to mount the most heart-pounding charge thus far this season to come from ninth back to first after his crew bobbled a left-front tire change on his last pit stop.
But that little thrill show for the final 32 laps, which reached its crescendo when he took the lead from Tony Stewart with two and a half laps to go, just might have been the last gasp of the kaleidoscopic run of news out of NASCAR.
And all it did was doubly reinforce Johnson's resurgence, showing he can win in a breeze or win in a fight -- whichever happens to be necessary at the moment.
So savor this finish while you can. Knaus doesn't allow too many mistakes on his pit crew, so don't count on another one turning a runaway into a fantastic finish.
"To have to run that hard," Johnson said of the end, "and pass that many good cars to get the lead, that was a challenge. I really had to tuck down and get going.
"I thought I was going to pop the wall there a couple of times. I drifted off in there [the corners] too fast and went right up to the crumbs. I'm like, 'Please stick, please!' And it stuck."
Stewart, who took the points lead with his second-place finish while Jeff Gordon finished 26th, said dueling Johnson was fun, but no more than that -- he had no hope of holding Johnson off.
"They definitely had the fastest car all day, so there's no shame in running second to those guys," Stewart said.
"We had an opportunity, we got up to the lead, and just couldn't hold off Jimmie. He was like a freight train coming. I was surprised I could hold him off as long as I did. I was pretty happy that we were able to do it for that long."
The show finally started 365 laps into the race, when the tire changer and tire carrier got their hands tangled at the No. 48's left front. That, plus five cars that took only two tires on that stop, left Johnson ninth when the green came out again with 32 to go.
Still, "I felt like we could get back up to the front," said Knaus, who will go back to Hendrick Motorsports and do deep analysis on what went wrong on the stop -- "really take a look at it and break down film to see exactly what happened."
Once that's cleared up, NASCAR life very likely will go back to a matter of who, if anybody, can stop Johnson and Knaus.
One jocular journalist asked afterward if they hadn't started "beating the hell out of everybody" too soon in the season -- that is, Johnson usually doesn't hit his stride until late summer and then on into the Chase.
Said Knaus: "You can never win races too soon."
This could be worse, earlier, than the past three seasons, when Johnson tied Cale Yarborough's record of three straight Cup championships.
Earnhardt, with new crew chief Lance McGrew on the box, ran better -- as high as third, before settling back to a 12th-place finish.
Busch, his tormentor this weekend with the remark that "It's never Junior; it's always the crew chief," struggled all race, had to pit unscheduled late with a right-front tire that was about to blow, and wound up 23rd.
Reutimann, who started on the pole and led 25 laps, got caught in the pits by a caution early, never recovered, and finished 18th.
Martin finished 10th after leading only once, and that's because teammate Johnson let him lead a lap for points' sake.
So there went all the spicy stories of the past month. And here's Jimmie Johnson, versus all the rest, the rest of the way this season.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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