DOVER, Del. — Jimmie Johnson was right where he was accustomed to being — at the top of the scoring pylon at Dover International Speedway.
OK, it was Saturday afternoon, not Sunday. And it was practice, not the Gander RV 400 (2 p.m. ET Sunday on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Nevertheless, the speed in practice — 161.863 mph — and his ability to work the outside lane gave the seven-time champion cause for optimism as Sunday’s main event approaches.
Even though he’s the all-time victory leader with 11 wins at the Monster Mile, Johnson needs to find a positive outlook wherever he can. Johnson’s 11th triumph at Dover was also his most recent in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
That was June 4, 2017, and since then, 69 races have passed since Johnson last visited Victory Lane. But that hasn’t diminished his fondness for Dover — or his conviction that he can win.
“Maybe I’m a fool, but just every time I come here, I feel like this,” Johnson said after the final practice. “This is just one of those places that an athlete finds a bond with a facility or a venue that they connect with.
“I don’t care if I have only three wheels on that thing, I still feel like I would have a shot to win. I just love this place.”
Among the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers, Johnson was slowest in Friday’s qualifying session. Chase Elliott won the pole, and teammate William Byron will start beside him on the front row. Alex Bowman qualified fifth, with Johnson earning the 12th starting position.
But as dramatically as track conditions change at Dover, Johnson was encouraged by Saturday’s practice.
“One thing I did see that was really nice is that the outside lane seemed to have a bit more of an opportunity,” Johnson said. “With lower-downforce packages here, you can’t commit to running a lot of wide-open throttle around the outside.
“Today in practice at least, with all this downforce (thanks to a taller rear spoiler introduced this year), I could climb in the throttle hard and carry a lot of speed off the corners. I saw some other cars out there doing it, too. So maybe this package will open up the groove and get us two or three lanes of great side-by-side racing.”
MARTIN TRUEX JR. ENCOURAGED BY STRONG FINAL PRACTICE
Martin Truex Jr. was particularly happy with his 13th-place qualifying effort on Friday.
In fact, Truex had the second-fastest Toyota in time trials, behind only eighth-place Denny Hamlin. Saturday’s final practice — the only practice of the day, as it turned out, with the opening session canceled because of a wet race track — was a different story.
Truex was second fastest in the session behind only Johnson, and he was pleased with the progress.
“We gained on it some, for sure,” said Truex, the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion. “Yesterday in qualifying, I was a little disappointed with 13th, to be honest with you. I felt like we could do a better job than that, and we typically qualify better than that here. Again, a whole different rules package and a short practice and we just missed it a little.
“That’s part of the deal here. The field is so close, and you gain or lose a tenth [of a second], and you can go from top-5 to 13th. That’s just the way it is. Missed it a little bit yesterday but made some improvements today, and I’m feeling really good about where the car is. It’s really comfortable to drive, and I think there’s some things we can do to make it better. Our speeds and our averages all look pretty good.
“Here, you get in the race and it’s all about having a car that drives the way you need it to, not so much about how fast it is. As the track goes that direction, it suits my style here, and that’s typically when I’ve been at my best. When the track gets rubbered in, it gets greasy and gets slick. That’s kind of when I’ve been able to do really well here. We’ll see what happens, but feeling good about it right now.”