DOVER, Del. -- The proverbial guard didn’t change. The house was defended, and whatever other clichés might apply.
Jimmie Johnson’s victory on Sunday at Dover International Speedway was like many of his previous 82 career wins, a product of a sleek Hendrick Motorsports race car, honed by crew chief Chad Knaus and harnessed by arguably the greatest stock car driver of all time.
And as is so often the case these days, it was historic.
The 41-year-old’s record 11th win on the 1-mile concrete oval tied him for sixth on the all-time Cup wins list with boyhood idol Cale Yarborough. And he did it on the day he wore a helmet honoring the Hall of Famer.
But there also was a symbolism to it. In taking advantage of Kyle Larson’s lengthy spin of his tires to snag the lead in an overtime restart and run off before a caution froze the field, the seven-time and defending series champion staved off a suitor for the wins and the championships he’ll leave for everyone else whenever he rides his bike or skis into the sunset. To do it in a place where he has won more races than any other track simply reinforced the point.
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The driver with the gray-flecked beard isn’t ready to pass any torch just yet. And grabbing it from him won’t be easy, either.
If Johnson was thinking any of that, he wasn’t admitting it. But it doesn’t matter.
“Kyle is going to win lots of races and be a household name and the face of our sport in the near future, if he's not on his way to doing that now,” said Johnson, who had to start from the rear of the 39-car field because Knaus had to change a rear gear in the car before the race. “He's a tough competitor, and I was just able to inch out over him on that restart.”
In a season in which nine different drivers have won in 13 races, Johnson now leads the series with three. Two of those came after he had to start from the rear of the field. Halfway through the regular season he’s winning where Jimmie Johnson wins, as he captured a victory at Texas Motor Speedway and was in position to capture the Coca-Cola 600 last week before running out of fuel in the waning laps.
Larson, who led a race-high 241 of 406 laps, initially was upset that Johnson had gamed the final restart by laying back for a stronger burst.
“I just made sure I didn't jump before him. But when it mattered, I was actually ahead of him by a couple inches. They can protest all they want. I got the trophy,” Johnson said with a grin.
But Larson conceded his mistake and the champion’s exploitation of it. A reoccurrence of Johnson’s fabled knack for capitalizing on good fortune – what Kevin Harvick in 2010 dubbed a “golden horseshoe stuck up (expletive)” - could be disconcerting, though. Larson, 24, continues a breakout season in which he’s won a race, been a weekly contender and led the standings for eight weeks. Johnson led seven laps.
“He did what he had to do to get the best launch that he did,” Larson said. “We were both playing games a little bit. He just took off better than I did. I wasn’t really complaining about the restart. He did a good job. He’s a seven-time champion for a reason. He’s got a golden horseshoe somewhere; and he’s really good at executing. So, I’ve just got to get better at that.”
Because Johnson isn’t moving aside.
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