Jimmie Johnson leads the field during Sunday's final restart.
It was the race that could have been for Dale Earnhardt Jr. It was the race that was for Jimmie Johnson.
Order, as we've mostly known it in the last decade of NASCAR, was restored Sunday when Johnson held off a challenge from his teammate in the No. 88 to score his first win of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Johnson's victory came in the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway.
Find out who and what scored the best and worst performances of Sunday's race, and what it all means as NASCAR sits just seven weeks away from its 2013 conclusion at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson rolled to his eighth career win at Dover.
Who didn't see that coming?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have tried to challenge Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson late in Sunday's 400-lapper at Dover, but any smart gambler knew Johnson had the race in the bag. One look at Johnson's Dover record—he now owns the most wins (eight) in speedway history, surpassing Richard Petty and David Pearson—tells all you need to know.
Johnson was simply sensational on Sunday. He led 61 percent of the race's laps (243) and just drove away when Earnhardt tried to challenge. Matt Kenseth may have the point lead, but Johnson has to be the title favorite.
Carl Edwards suffered a part failure late in Sunday's race.
Of the two Chase drivers from Roush Fenway Racing, it was Carl Edwards who seemed like he had the best chance of at least staying within arm's length of the Chase front-runners. After Sunday, that thought is gone.
Edwards suffered a problem with a wheel hub in the race's final 30 laps and eventually was forced to the garage area for a replacement. He returned to the track to finish the race 15 laps down in 35th.
Edwards wasn't on pace to win Sunday's race—he was a 10th- to 15th-place car—but the 20-plus points lost, thanks to the part failure, was enough to knock 65 points behind point leader Kenseth.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. came up just short Sunday at Dover.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. seemed pretty downtrodden after Sunday's race. You can't really blame him for it.
Earnhardt started on the pole for Sunday's race and never fell worse than ninth in the running order. He led 80 laps and certainly had a car capable of winning. But he didn't win the race, and instead watched his teammate Jimmie Johnson take another victory.
It's certainly understandable that Earnhardt may feel a bit down, but the fact still remains that Sunday's race may have been the most competitive Earnhardt has been all year. He was a contender and was able to come back from mistakes. That's a solid day.
Kurt Busch struggled to a 21st-place finish at Dover.
Kurt Busch started Sunday's race with a new pit crew hoping to eliminate any further issues on pit road that could cost him critical spots. Ultimately, it didn't matter.
The team suffered another issue with a loose wheel that forced Busch to pit road in the middle of the race for a green-flag pit stop, costing him several laps and relegating the No. 78 to a poor finish.
Busch also never was satisfied with the handling of his car and fell backward early. That disappointment wasn't internalized either, as Busch spent much of the race's first half ripping his team and car over the in-car radio.
Drivers in the Chase mostly prospered in Sunday's third race of the title fight.
If you were hoping Dover would provide some unexpected turns to either tighten up the points race or drop more drivers completely out, you weren't in luck.
All of the first 10 spots were claimed by drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup with only Kasey Kahne (13th), Kurt Busch (21st) and Carl Edwards (35th) sitting further back.
The result? Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch are largely in the same close gaps they had before Sunday's race, and no other driver made up enough ground to be considered a part of the top-flying crew.
Credit the lack of cautions and incidents in Sunday's race for a lot of the lack of change. The good teams—the Chase teams—rose to the top.
Danica Patrick raced with the leaders only while getting lapped on Sunday.
Danica Patrick made her 39th Sprint Cup start on Sunday and her third at Dover. It proved to be the worst of her Dover starts and continued steady streak of disappointment from the No. 10 this season.
Patrick finished six laps off the pace in 29th with a car that stayed tight in traffic throughout the race. At one point, she was as low as 38th.
Dover is a tough track and one that isn't easy to master for most new drivers to NASCAR's top series. Still, the lack of notable improvement in results from Patrick and that team leaves plenty of questions about how well Stewart-Haas Racing will fare with a fourth team in 2014.
Jamie McMurray finished as the best non-Chase driver Sunday.
There's not much to celebrate in an 11th-place finish, but Sunday, Jamie McMurray had to at least smile at the overall improvement his No. 1 Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing team has shown in recent weeks.
His 11th-place finish marked the best among non-Chase drivers and continued a six-race streak of finishing 19th or better. More, McMurray now has a 13-race span (dating to Kentucky in June) where he has finished 22nd or better. It's a small streak that has moved McMurray from 21st in points to 14th.
Aside from restarts, Sunday's race was often light on action.
Sunday's race at Dover had no incidents and only four caution flags for questionable on-track debris. The racing was rarely intense and side-by-side battles for the lead were basically nonexistent. The biggest drama came on restarts.
That's not Dover's fault. Instead, it's become an all-too-common symptom of NASCAR's on-track action. Most races are being won on pit road or via a restart. The leader is difficult to pass, and track position is often a premium.
NASCAR has been trying to find ways to boost attendance and interest. Making the racing better—especially in the third race of a highly touted postseason system—would be the way to start.
Joey Logano earned his first top-5 finish of the Chase at Dover.
Just before the Chase, Joey Logano was hot. An eighth finish at Indianapolis sparked a six-race run of six top-10s, three top-fives and a win. He vaulted in to the Chase and had the look of a dark-horse title favorite.
But then Logano blew an engine in Chicago and then finished a middling 14th at New Hampshire to put those hopes on the shelf.
Logano turned it around Sunday at Dover, however, and rolled to a third-place finish through steady improvement and a solid final pit stop. The 41 points he earned wasn't enough to leap back in to any type of title consideration, but it was a nice turnaround for a team so disappointed after two weeks of competition.