The next stop on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule was the Dover International Speedway, affectionately known as the Monster Mile, for the AAA 400 Drive for Autism.
A year removed from nearly winning his first career Cup race at the track, Kyle Larson was eager to redeem himself on the mile-long oval, especially as the track’s Xfinity Series race winner on Saturday. However, it was Jimmie Johnson who went on to win the race, albeit in controversial fashion.
Kyle Busch started on the pole alongside Martin Truex Jr. Busch led the first 17 laps until the first caution of the day came out for Ryan Sieg; making his Cup Series debut in the #83 car, Sieg spun in turn two. Although Busch won the race off pit road, his left rear wheel came off shortly after exiting his pit box. Per NASCAR rules, the “loss of wheel(s) due to improper installation will result in a mandatory minimum four Race suspension of the crew chief and tire changer and tire carrier of the lost wheel(s).”
He was shuffled out of the top-30 for the restart on lap 22, which was led by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Truex. Truex took the lead on the restart, while Stenhouse’s day started to fall apart on lap 47, when he cut a tire and hit the wall to bring out the caution. Larson and Matt Kenseth took the lead after taking two tires, and led the restart on lap 52. Nine laps later, Stenhouse was involved in another caution when he hit the wall again, forcing him to retire from the race.
Kurt Busch inherited the lead for the lap 61 restart, but his lead was short-lived, lasting only a turn; as Larson attempted to pass him, Busch got loose and collided with Brad Keselowski in the outside wall. This led to another yellow flag and restart on lap 70 with Larson and Truex as the leaders. Larson led ten laps until Truex passed him on lap 80, bumping the #42 out of the way and causing him to remark, “If that’s how he wants to race, that’s how we should race him.”
On lap 96, Kurt Busch blew a tire and spun out, forcing a caution. With the leaders deciding to stay out, Truex remained the leader for the lap 105 restart and went on to win the stage, his eighth of the season. Larson, Kevin Harvick, Kenseth, Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Kyle Busch and Daniel Suárez rounded out the top-10.
The second stage began on lap 127 with Larson becoming the leader. After 20 laps, the first caution of the stage came out for Danica Patrick spinning in turn four. Michael McDowell elected to not pit for the restart on lap 150 and was the leader alongside Larson. The faster car of Larson quickly overtook McDowell, who blocked the progress of Kyle Busch and Truex before dropping through the field. On lap 193, Joey Logano blew his right front tire and went into the wall to bring out the yellow flag. Larson continued to lead as green flag racing resumed on lap 199 until Truex passed him 12 laps later.
Landon Cassill hit the wall on lap 218 to create the ninth caution of the race. Larson pitted before the restart and dropped to 9th, while Truex was still the leader. The New Jerseyan dominated the remainder of the stage to win. Behind him were Johnson, Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Larson, Harvick, Chase Elliott, Blaney, Jones and Kahne.
Stage #3 was underway on lap 247. Larson caught up to Truex, who got loose and allowed Larson to make the pass a lap later. After relinquishing 1st, Truex began to fall, with Johnson and Kenseth passing him. A debris caution on lap 263 bunched up the field, with the leaders staying out instead of pitting. Larson and Johnson paced the field to the green five laps later.
Green flag stops began with 75 laps remaining, with many leaders like Larson pitting. Johnson stayed out and secured his lead with a stroke of luck: as he led and the other leaders were on pit road, Regan Smith hit the wall on lap 329 to bring out the caution. This allowed Johnson to remain in the lead as he came to pit road for his stop, while also placing the others, including Larson, a lap down. Larson regained a lap courtesy of the free pass, but had to start at the tail end of the cars on the lead lap. Ty Dillon’s 12.2-second stop proved to be his advantage as it allowed him to become the leader alongside Johnson for the restart on lap 338. Five laps later, Chris Buescher connected with Paul Menard, sending the latter into the wall for the 13th caution of the race. Larson, who was approaching the two on the high line, was able to dive low in time to escape the wreck.
The green flag waved with 52 laps to go as Dillon remained the leader. 13 laps later, Larson was on Dillon’s tail; the two-time race winner made a feint to the inside before passing the rookie on the outside. As the laps wound down, it appeared Larson would be on pace to win his third career Cup Series race and second of the season. However, with four laps to go, David Ragan cut a tire and hit the wall to force overtime.
for Larson, the track was affected by Speedy Dry, an oil absorbent that had not been cleared from the track on time; Larson’s car was covered in the material as NASCAR delayed the restart by a lap to continue cleanup.
As the green flag flew, a bad restart by Larson enabled Johnson to pull away, crossing the overtime line. Behind them, Dillon got loose and hit Ryan Newman on the backstretch; this caused Dillon to pull up the track and spin into Jones. The resulting contact also collected Ty’s brother Austin, Jamie McMurray and Harvick, while A.J. Allmendinger and Trevor Bayne spun, hitting Cole Whitt and Clint Bowyer. The caution was quickly flown and as Johnson had already crossed the overtime line, ended the race and declaring Johnson the winner.
The victory was Johnson’s 83rd, tying him with NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough for sixth on the all-time win list, and his 11th at the track. In the days leading up to the race, Johnson unveiled a Yarborough-themed tribute helmet and dedicated his win to Yarborough. In Victory Lane, Johnson wore a red #28 cap, dedicating it to former spotter Lorin Ranier, whose father Henry owned Yarborough’s #28 team.
“I never thought that I would end up here in NASCAR as a kid racing in the dirt out in Southern California,” Johnson stated. “I was a big Cale Yarborough fan and I remember going to a race in Oklahoma with my parents and my brother.”
“We were driving across the country and we pulled to a Hardee’s, had no idea it was a burger stand, and I really thought, when I walked in the door, is that I was going into Cale Yarborough’s race shop,” he laughed. “I was very disappointed, had a burger and left and then understood the world of sponsorship.”
“To be here, to tie him at 83 wins, we just got the tribute helmet, I wasn’t sure how quick it would be or how if we would be able to go there and get it done, but Cale, you’re the man, thank you for all that you’ve done for our sport and to be a part of one team, one sponsor – Lowe’s, Chevrolet, Valvoline, Gatorade – supporting the fans, this is an amazing day.”
After leading a race-high 241 laps, Larson finished 2nd. It was his fifth 2nd-place finish of the season.
“We were both playing games, he just took off better than I did,” Larson said. “He’s a seven-time champ for a reason. He’s got a golden horseshoe somewhere and he’s really good at executing, so that’s how to get better at that.”
Finishing 3rd, Truex remained the points leader, holding a nine-point advantage over Larson. Newman and Elliott finished 4th and 5th, respectively, followed by Suárez, McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Harvick and Patrick. The 10th-place finish marked Patrick’s seventh top-10 in the Cup Series and her first since the 2015 Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Next week, the Cup Series travels to Pocono Raceway for the Axalta presents the Pocono 400.
Race results (courtesy of Racing-Reference)