DOVER, Del. — Jimmie Johnson wore a helmet painted in tribute to boyhood race hero Cale Yarborough. He then went out and tied the Hall of Famer on NASCAR's career wins list last year at Dover.
For Johnson, winning at Dover had become the norm — his 11 wins on the mile track are easily the record. His victory was already his third of the season and the hunt for a record eighth championship was roaring ahead.
Until it stalled.
He had just two top-10s over the next 12 races, fell out of title contention and never finished a race better than third. He opened this season by wrecking out of the Daytona 500 and has just one top-five in 10 races.
The 42-year-old Johnson is used to racking up the kind of milestones that have made him a surefire Hall of Famer. But his return to Dover marks a rather ignominious distinction — he's riding the longest losing streak of his career at 33 races.
Is it over at Dover?
"We'll get it close, and history shows that," Johnson said. "Hopefully we get it perfect and we can have the day that we really want to have and get back to victory lane. But it does take a little pressure off me knowing that this is my best track and knowing that this is my favorite track."
The Hendrick Motorsports driver swept Dover in 2002 and 2009 and won races in 2005, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017. He also joined NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty (Martinsville-15, North Wilkesboro-15, Richmond-13, Rockingham-11) and Darrell Waltrip (Bristol-12, Martinsville-11) as drivers to win 11 races at a single track. His 83rd career victory tied him with Yarborough for sixth on the career victory list. Waltrip and Bobby Allison are next at 84.
"I think we have created an environment of very high expectations because of the success we've had and I think people forget how special our run has been," Johnson said. "We certainly want to get back into those ways and have it happen again. But history shows it doesn't happen very often. And we're very fortunate to harness lightning for a long stretch of time."
His biggest loss, though, has been his sponsor. Lowe's is leaving the sport after 18 years as the only Cup Series sponsor Johnson has had. His rights are for sale for the first time.
Then there is the question of his manufacturer — Chevrolet switched its car body to the Camaro. Austin Dillon's win in the Daytona 500 is the only one for a Chevy driver this season and Kyle Larson's pole run on Friday was just the second for Chevy of the season.
Toyota won eight of the final 10 races in 2017, including the championship with Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing.
"I think we have been the benchmark or that high watermark for so many years, that other manufacturers and teams invested a couple of years in figuring out how to beat us," Johnson said.
Johnson, who starts 19th, hopes the turnaround truly starts at Dover.
Other items of notes at Dover:
NOT SO FAST?
Larson, who won his fifth career pole, isn't quick to blame the Camaro for the Chevy drivers' collective funk.
"I've never been one of the guys that has said we've been behind where we were last year with the new Camaros," he said. "I've felt like our team has done a really good job of taking what we had last year with the SS and then putting everything that we learned through that into the Camaro and been just as fast."
Daniel Suarez starts a solid seventh as he tries to build on consecutive top-10 finishes. The second-year Joe Gibbs Racing driver broke his left thumb in a race last month at Texas.
"It's not painful at all. It's just not 100 percent comfortable because I can't really grab the wheel how I want," Suarez said.
He'll race with a brace for about two more weeks.
GO GO LOGANO
Joey Logano topped the speed chart Saturday in the second practice, a strong run following his first win of the season at Talladega. Logano's win qualified him for the playoffs. He failed to make the playoffs last year even with a win — NASCAR essentially stripped him of all benefits that came with his April win at Richmond because of a rear suspension violation.
His win last week in the No. 22 Ford for Roger Penske stood.
"I didn't want to go through that again," Logano said. "There is a little feeling of relief knowing that we are in the playoffs. The goal has changed. When you start the season, it is always to win the championship which you have to take one step at a time."
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