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With fewer than 50 laps remaining in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA 400, Jimmie Johnson was leading the way around Dover International Speedway in hopes of grabbing his eighth victory at the 1-mile concrete oval.
But on lap 357 of 400, crew chief Chad Knaus instructed Johnson to slow his Kobalt Tools Chevrolet to save fuel, a strategy that forced Johnson to relinquish the lead but ensured a solid, fourth-place finish.
“Well, for starters, we’re not very good at fuel-mileage races,” Johnson said. “So when I heard that, I’m like, ‘Man, we’re in big trouble.’ And he asked me to start saving fuel. And I doubled the distance out of the gate just to make sure that I did enough to get us to the end. So it’s tough; it really is. But we have a handful of races that come down to (fuel mileage) each year, and we’ve worked to get better at it. And this is like the second of 15 or something that we’ve attempted to finish in a low-fuel situation and got it done. So I’m improving, and we’re improving. I wish we could have raced for it. We finally got control of the race late, but it just didn’t unfold like a normal race here.”
Johnson started 11th but quickly climbed through the field when the green flag waved. He eventually found his way to third, where he remained for most of the afternoon. When Johnson came down pit road for a routine stop on lap 310, the Team Lowe’s Racing pit crew went to work and sent Johnson back to the track in the lead. He went on to lead the next 43 laps before giving up the lead to save fuel.
Other teams opted to stay on the track and hope for a caution but ultimately were forced to pit under green and finished a lap down.
“In this sport, with as many races as we have and as many types of races that we have, it’s real tough to control your foot and not stand on the gas and try to keep them behind you,” Johnson said. “But it is what it is. You’ve got to be good on all fronts, and we did a decent job today.”
Brad Keselowski won the AAA 400 to score his ninth career Sprint Cup victory, his fifth of the season and his first at Dover.
Jeff Gordon finished 1.078 seconds behind Keselowski in the runner-up spot, while Mark Martin, Johnson and Carl Edwards rounded out the top-five. Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were five caution periods for 28 laps, with seven drivers failing to finish the 400-lap race. Only six cars were on the lead lap at the end of the event, while only 11 cars completed 398 or more laps.
Johnson fell to second place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, five points behind Keselowski.
With seven races remaining before a champion is crowned following the season finale Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the top-12 drivers competing for the title rank as follows:
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule – the fourth race of the 10-race Chase – is the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 on Oct. 7 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. The race begins at 2 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by ESPN beginning with a pre-race show at 1 p.m.