DOVER, Del. — Dover in the fall.
For Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team, there is likely not a better destination spot during the 10-race journey that determines the Sprint Cup Series championship.
Since Johnson made his fulltime debut in the Cup series in 2002, he has never finished worse than 14th in the fall event at the 1-mile concrete oval, including fifth or better the past four seasons.
Johnson enters Sundays AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway as the Cup series points leader, holding a one-point advantage over Brad Keselowski.
Even in his five consecutive championship seasons (2006-2010), which included two victories in Dover fall races, Johnson has never left this race better than second in points.
That fact alone is enough to leave even Johnsons competitors envying the position in which he finds himself.
I think it gives them a big advantage. Certainly it allows the competition to get down beat mentally as well as on the race track, said Jeff Gordon, Johnsons HMS teammate, and no slouch himself at Dover.
These guys, they are just so strong, you dont expect them to make mistakes. When they are in this position, you expect them to be strong week-in and week-out and they are going to be tough to beat.
They are just that good.
So, what makes Johnson so good at Dover?
Johnson has seven wins at Dover in his career the most of any track. He has six at both Charlotte and Martinsville, Va.
He began his Cup career with a sweep of both Dover races in the 2002 season and has won four of the last seven races at the track. On a track where it is easy to get caught up in wrecks started by others, Johnson has just two finishes worse than 16th in 21 career starts.
I think out of all the oval tracks we race on, this one is most similar to my off-road background. The drop-off into the corner, the way the rubber lays down and you have to select a different line through the turn, kind of reminds me of dirt racing, Johnson said.
Then you climb back up that hill and jump onto the straightaway and then go do it again and again and again. I think thats really where things work the best for me.
Yet even a good feel of the track doesnt guarantee success in NASCAR, where teams find new advantages almost on a weekly basis.
Johnsons crew chief, Chad Knaus, certainly doesnt come to Dover races resting the teams previous record.
It does take a lot of work (to maintain success). And whats confusing is that this track does change quite a bit, Johnson explained. With the tire that weve had for the last couple of years, it lays a lot of rubber down and the way your car handles on a clean track during practice is far different than what you have in the race.
You really have to fall back on experience and keep an open mind about the new pieces you bring or the new thoughts you bring to your set-up; and whether will they work come race time.
Far more often than not, the new ideas have worked well for Johnson at Dover. And lately, success in the fall race at Dover has translated into strong title runs.
Only once since Johnsons debut in 2002 has he left the fall Dover race worse than fifth in the series standings.
Knaus, however, isnt sold success here is a viable predictor of a great season.
I wouldnt say that after Dover there is a clear indication of who is going to win the championship. Things are so close right now, everyone is still in this, Knaus said.
Im not saying that you cant be in a better or worse spot after this race, but I just dont know that having a good runs equates to winning the championship.
Theres too much racing left.
In fact, one of Johnsons top competitors, Denny Hamlin, put in a dominating performance in his victory last weekend at New Hampshire one reminiscent of some of Johnsons previous victories in the Chase.
To Gordon, though, there is a significant difference.
You know, I think what (Hamlin) did was pretty big, Gordon said. But hes going to have to do that for eight more weeks.