NASCAR Dover 2014: FedEx 400 preview

Patrick Smith

Jimmie Johnson may be the favorite to win the FedEx 400, but Kyle Busch will certainly factor into the outcome Sunday.

Seven arduous months. A stretch of races filled with frustration and wonderment if the losing streak was ever going to come to an end. Endless questions about a run of unprecedented futility.

Such is life when you're Jimmie Johnson and have established such an expectation where 13 races without a victory creates a stir that something is amiss within the No. 48 team.

"There has been a lot of pressure and expectations put on us as a team and a lot of things written about us and the long winless streak," Johnson said Friday. "But that pressure that people might see and suspect that might be wearing on us is nothing compared to the pressure we put on ourselves as a race team. We expect a lot out of ourselves."

Through it all the defending champion never wavered in his belief that things were not as dire as perceived. Yes, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were bickering on the radio, conversations between the two often terse. But that in and of itself wasn't uncommon.

Knaus is well known for his bluntness, especially when things work against the 48 team. And that personality popped up when things didn't go as planned in the opening months of the 2014 season, be it a blown tire with two laps remaining and Johnson comfortably in lead at Fontana, or a dominating afternoon at Martinsville coming undone in the final handful of laps when the handling on the No. 48 Chevrolet went awry.

And while Johnson may not be at ease with the rules package NASCAR implemented for the Generation-6 car this past offseason -- the new regulations make the cars much tighter for drivers, with Johnson preferring a looser handling car -- his performance hadn't dipped all that precariously from previous years. He was still leading a significant amount of laps (second overall) and was in position to win several times had circumstances not worked against him.

That breakthrough first victory of 2014 finally came a week ago in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Johnson led a race-high 164 laps to win from the pole. And just like that the narrative had significantly changed.

"We feel like wins have gotten away from us this year that we weren't happy about and we also feel that there are tracks that we went to where we just had poor performances," Johnson said. "So, the win is great, but we kind of hold ourselves to that standard and we're coming to one of our best tracks and the expectations are very high for this weekend."

No longer are there questions about when Johnson will again, now it's will he ever lose? Not an unreasonable query when you consider the upcoming schedule beginning with Sunday's FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway.

Johnson is not just superior at Dover, he's overpowering. His victory last September was No. 8 overall, breaking a tie with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for most all-time at the one-mile oval.

"We are coming to my favorite race track and by the stats probably our best track as well." - Jimmie Johnson

The dominance goes above just wins, as Johnson has led a 100 or more laps in nine of his previous 10 Dover starts. All of which makes it seem like a foregone conclusion the 48 team will end Sunday by celebrating its second victory in as many weeks. An assertion furthered when Johnson qualified fourth and then paced Saturday's final practice.

"Just looking to expand on a great performance last weekend," Johnson said. "We are coming to my favorite race track and by the stats probably our best track as well. Excited to be here."

But much like Johnson's supposed slump, reality doesn't necessarily match perception.

Although he's won 50 percent of the races since 2009 at Dover, Johnson isn't infallible. In fact, the Monster Mile has been where the six-time Cup champion has committed a couple of notable gaffes.

Four years ago Johnson incurred a speeding penalty during his final pit stop, handing an apparent victory to Kyle Busch. And it was a year ago when Johnson -- lined up second to leader Juan Pablo Montoya -- jumped a restart with 18 laps left. Without hesitation, NASCAR black flagged Johnson, who finished 17th.

As sublime as Johnson may be, by no means is he the only one who has figured out the bumpy, concrete, high-speed oval. His chief competition Sunday will likely be Busch, Johnson's usual antagonist at Dover. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has finished seventh in seven of eight races -- the only outlier result due to an engine failure.

Busch staked his claim as a co-favorite by dominating the Truck and Nationwide Series races Friday and Saturday. A win Sunday would give him a weekend tripleheader sweep, something which Busch has done once previously in 2010 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

"I think our chances are pretty good," said Busch, who qualified second. "We start up front, which is great here always, and if we can stay up there most of the day and fine tune on her and tweak on her a little bit we can probably be right back (in Victory Lane)."

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