His 0-for-11 start left some wondering when Johnson would take a checkered flag.
The six-time champ can check that off the list after winning the Coca-Cola 600. Now, it’s off to Dover International Speedway where Johnson is the heavy favorite today to start a winning streak — and add to his resume as the track’s greatest driver.
“We are coming to my favorite racetrack,” Johnson said, “and by the stats, probably our best track as well.”
When Johnson held off teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. down the stretch in September, he zipped his way into the Dover record book with his eighth win. Johnson had shared the mark of seven wins on the concrete mile with Bobby Allison and Richard Petty. He swept Dover in 2002 and 2009 and won races in 2005, 2010 and 2012. He needed only 24 starts to win eight — Petty needed 46 races to win seven times and Allison had 35 races.
Johnson was humbled by holding a place in history with NASCAR Hall of Famers.
“When I look at the people that I’m tying or have the opportunity to beat for those great titles, it’s the heroes of our sport,” he said. “When you look at their stats and what they’ve done for our sport, household names, it’s no small feat to tie or have the opportunity to beat these guys for races won at the track.”
Johnson held his baby daughter in his arms in Victory Lane for the first time in 2010, and he celebrated in a clown wig in 2012.
Sweet or silly, a Johnson romp at Dover has become an expected part of the NASCAR season.
His eight wins match his total at Martinsville for most at one track, checkered flags waved from the pre-Chase era through the Car of Tomorrow all the way to the Gen-6. But the cool, confident Johnson behind the wheel of the No. 48 Chevrolet with crew chief Chad Knaus calling the shots hasn’t changed.
“Regardless of change, there are just some tracks that work well for you,” Johnson said. “You are able to still find that feeling you are looking for regardless of circumstances.”
Johnson qualified fourth for today’s race (Brad Keselowski won the pole), which will surely keep him in the mix for win No. 9. He won from eighth last season and has rallied from as far back as 19th in 2002 to win.
He owns the largest collection of Monster trophies awarded by the track. Known as the Monster Mile, the Dover winner gets a menacing monster trophy that weighs 60 pounds and measures at just under 1½ feet from the base to the top of the hand that clutches a mini car.
Johnson keeps five on the top shelf of a bar at his home. He has the rest scattered around a pub set up inside a warehouse for his classic car collection.
“They’re a big trophy and they certainly draw a lot of attention,” Johnson said.
Here are five things to know heading into the race:
FAVORITE TRACK: Johnson has eight good reasons to call Dover his favorite track. But he’s not the only driver who enjoys his 400-mile spins around the concrete monster.
Joey Logano, who won the pole for Saturday’s Nationwide race, also loves Dover.
“This is definitely my favorite track,” he said. “I grew up in Connecticut and we aren’t too far down the road from there. This is a neat place to run at.”
How about Matt Kenseth?
“It’s always been one of my favorites,” he said. “You can attack it. It’s one of the tracks that’s pretty hard to get around fast by yourself and then you throw all of them cars out there and it makes it a lot harder.”
Of course, having Johnson and his eight wins at Dover makes winning a lot harder, also. Kenseth has two wins in 30 starts at Dover, while Logano has yet to win a Cup race at Dover.
PLAY IT AGAIN: Dover is always a key race because it can help teams form a better game plan for when the series returns Sept. 28.
Dover is third in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship lineup, made even more important this season because of NASCAR’s new elimination format. After Dover, the 16-driver field will be trimmed to 12, and it will be a last gasp for some drivers to hang or boost their spot for a championship run.
A strong run today can certainly serve as confidence-building opening act for September’s big show.
“We’re looking for as much information as we can gather to make sure that if we’re in the Chase and come back, we can be competitive enough to go win the championship and be strong at that race,” four-time Jeff Gordon said. “There’s no doubt that this is an important track. We recognize that this is a track that you can win this championship with.”
HAMLIN HELPS: Denny Hamlin will drive Sunday with an Autism Speaks puzzle piece paint scheme on the No. 11 Toyota.
Hamlin and members of his FedEx racing team donated toys to families at the track from Toys R Us that can help children with autism develop language, creativity and social skills. FedEx returns as the title sponsor of the race for the fourth straight year, “FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks.”
“It costs these families a lot of money to have a child with autism, a lot of time,” Hamlin said. “It’s important for us to keep with that cause.”
The track has a dedicated area with a quiet zone for parents to help their children escape the crowd, if necessary.
PATRICK’S START: Danica Patrick’s recent run of strong qualifying starts ended with a thud at Dover, coming in 28th.
She started seventh at Talladega, ninth at Kansas (and finished seventh), and fourth last weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“Most of the people that are sitting there saying she is not doing a good job have never set foot in a race car to begin with,” car owner and teammate Tony Stewart said. “I don’t really pay attention to that too much. I think she is doing a good job or we wouldn’t have her here.”
CUP DEBUT: Brett Moffitt is set to make his Sprint Cup debut driving the No. 66 Jay Robinson Racing Toyota.
The 21-year-old Moffitt has tested for Michael Waltrip Racing and won at Dover in the K&N Pro Series East series. The ride comes as part of a partnership with MWR.
He starts a solid 18th, two spots ahead of Stewart. Moffitt made one Nationwide Series start in 2012 and two in the Truck Series last season.