DOVER, Del. — Jimmie Johnson went from running away from the field to running down Tony Stewart.
Johnson nipped at Stewart’s bumper, went nose-to-nose, then soared past him on an outside pass on the concrete track.
One Cup champion outduelling another in the battle for the checkered flag.
Johnson thrashed the field, then rebounded from a late pit stop that dropped him back into traffic to catch Stewart with two laps left in a thrilling finish in the Sprint Cup series race Sunday at Dover International Speedway.
“We just couldn’t hold off Jimmie,” Stewart said. “He was like a freight train coming.”
Johnson had one of the more dominant performances of his career, taking control early on the concrete to lead a career-high 298 laps.
That seemed to be enough for the three-time defending Cup champion to cruise into Victory Lane until a botched pit stop on a four-tire change with 36 laps left knocked Johnson from the lead.
Johnson was far from sunk.
“It was a small hiccup,” Johnson said.
One by one, Johnson methodically picked off the drivers in front of him. He charged past Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch until only Greg Biffle and Stewart were ahead of the No. 48 Chevrolet with 10 laps left. Johnson passed Biffle and that set up the frantic finish that rivalled Talladega for the most dramatic end so far this season.
“I don’t know how it gets much more exciting than that,” Stewart said.
Johnson knew Stewart was his once Biffle, who won a Chase race at Dover last year, was out of the way.
“That allowed me enough time to set Tony up and really work on that last little bit to find my line and perfect it and get by Tony,” Johnson said.
Johnson won for the second time this season and the fourth time in a Cup race at Dover. He has 42 career Cup victories.
“I just had to go,” Johnson said. “I had one heck of a race with Tony. That’s how racing’s supposed to be done.”
Stewart was second, followed by Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 12th in his first race with crew chief Lance McGrew.
“We’ve got to do this a lot,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t want to give ourselves any credit yet until we can perform at this level more consistently but I’m really proud of my guys today.”
Earnhardt posted his best finish since Talladega in his first race without longtime crew chief Tony Eury Jr. Hendrick Motorsports made the decision to give McGrew a shot at calling the race a week earlier than expected. Earnhardt ran in the top 10 for a portion of the first half of the race, and has to hope this kind of finish can start to turn his season around.