With 17 laps to go, Jimmie Johnson found himself in a situation he’d not been in for a long time; leading in the closing laps of a NASCAR Cup Series race, thanks to a tire gamble.
He rallied from a speeding penalty earlier in the day to a spot in the top-five, but didn’t have the speed to run down Kevin Harvick, who did what he’s done all season and dominated the day at Dover International Speedway.
“I think we were one of the fastest cars, if not the fastest car over the last two runs,” he said. “Just unfortunately clawing our way back in from losing track position, and we didn’t have the best stop two from the end, so we really just had to gamble.”
And gamble, he did.
When Corey LaJoie brought out the final caution of the Drydene 311, Johnson took just right-side tires and exited pit road with the race lead.
He lined up on the front row beside Harvick, who was on four new tires.
“I knew when we hit the gas and the 4 car was able to stay with me, I was going to be in trouble,” he said. “I needed to clear him into (Turn) 1 and quickly I realized that my left sides were pretty exhausted and just didn’t have the grip we needed in them.”
While Harvick drove onto his 56th career victory, Johnson battled with teammate, William Byron, who’s also on the playoff bubble.
Thanks to late race lap traffic, he kept Byron behind him and brought his car home third, in what’s possibly his final start at the track he’s won at 11 times.
Combined with his seventh-place finish, Saturday, at Dover and fourth, last Sunday, at Daytona, this finish provided much needed momentum for a driver who hadn’t scored a top-10 finish since Martinsville in June.
“Momentum really works for you in either direction, and to run good at Daytona, to run decent at Michigan, to take these two races this weekend, top-10 and a top-five, that’s all going the right way, and it helps me,” he said. “It helps every one of us on the team.”
Despite the good runs, however, he leaves Dover four points out of a playoff spot.