NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson sets sights on 10th win at Dover’s Monster Mile

Jimmie Johnson climbs into his car in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway on Friday, May 29, 2015 in Dover, Del.
Jimmie Johnson climbs into his car in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway on Friday, May 29, 2015 in Dover, Del. GETTY

For Jimmie Johnson, it might as well be all or nothing at Dover International Speedway.

Johnson has won nine times during his Sprint Cup career at the Monster Mile, and will go for No. 10 Sunday in the FedEx 400.

So when he doesn’t end up in the winner’s circle at Dover, it’s an odd sort of feeling for Johnson, a six-time Sprint Cup champion.

“It’s a different mindset coming (to Dover),” said Johnson. “It’s very serving and works well for us. But with rules-package changes, tire-combination changes, we still need to chase the balance of the race car.

“So I find that the moments when we are off, we are probably a little more anxious than when we would be at other tracks, due to the fact that we’ve been so good (at Dover).”

That’s why Johnson sometimes feels that if he doesn’t win at Dover, he’s not even in contention. In last fall’s race, he finished third behind winner and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski.

“There is this level of expectation that we have amongst (our team) that we don’t even realize, until we’re in a challenging moment,” said Johnson. “Last fall, we ran a distant third to (Gordon), who was in control all race long. Man, it was like we finished 35th, with the demeanor on the team.

“So there are many pros” to his success at Dover, “but then some cons show up down the road.”

What is it about Dover that has helped Johnson enjoy so much much success?

“The set of corners from straightaway to straightaway, you kind of work up your bravery, you make it through the corner, you get on the next straightaway, you smile, like, ‘Wow, that was pretty cool, I’m going to do it again, here we go,’” said Johnson. “And you fly through (Turns) 3 and 4 and you just end up with that mindset around the racetrack. It’s a ton of fun.”

Johnson heads into Sunday’s race with a penalty he received last week after the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway still unresolved.

Johnson was assessed a P1 level penalty after receiving two written warnings during Charlotte’s speed weeks – first for modifying a side skirt during the Sprint All-Star Race, then for needing too many times to pass pre-qualifying inspection before the Coca-Cola 600.

Johnson was penalized with having the last choice of pit stalls for Sunday’s Dover race. But Hendrick Motorsports has appealed the penalty, putting matters on hold until the appeal is resolved.

“We definitely don’t agree with what has happened and getting the letters,” said Johnson. “That’s why the penalty has taken place. I look forward to the appeals process running its course and respect it. I certainly hope for different outcome once everything runs its course.”

The appeal hadn’t been heard by Friday, so Johnson had his choice of pit stall based on his qualifying performance that has him starting 14th Sunday. It was another disappointing qualifying day for Johnson, a three-time winner this season who hasn’t won a pole and has started as far back as 37th in Atlanta.

“Race days, I think we’re on par,” said Johnson before Friday’s qualifying session. “We’ve been comparative. We’ve won three races and been in contention for a few more. We’ve just got to clean up Fridays. That’s really been the weak spot and it just creates so much more difficulty for us over the course of the weekend. So I’d give myself a different grade for race day than I would for qualifying. And it’s somewhere that we’re focused to really get right.”

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With a victory Sunday at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, Jimmie Johnson would become the fifth driver in NASCAR history to win 10 races at a single track:

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).

David Pearson: Darlington (10).

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