DOVER, Del. - Jimmie Johnson was on the hunt.
One of the most dominant performances of his career was going to be reduced to a footnote if he couldn't catch Tony Stewart over the final few laps.
One by one, Johnson methodically picked off the drivers in front of him until all that was left was Stewart.
Johnson nipped at Stewart, than soared past him on one final outside pass with two laps left in a thrilling finish and won the Sprint Cup series race Sunday at Dover International Speedway.
'I had to drive so far over my head to get by him,' Johnson said. 'I had no idea what was going to happen, but I knew I had a great race car. I knew there were some laps left and it was just time to go and I got it done.'
Johnson took control early on the concrete to help him 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.
He was far from sunk.
'It was a small hiccup,' Johnson said.
He charged past Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch until only Greg Biffle and Stewart were ahead of his No. 48 Chevrolet with 10 laps left. Johnson passed Biffle and that set up the frantic finish that rivaled Talladega for the most dramatic end so far this season.
'We just couldn't hold off Jimmie,' Stewart said. 'He was like a freight train coming.'
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.
'One of the things I liked about Lance is I felt like I was in the pit box with him all day, and I felt like he was riding with me all day,' Earnhardt said. 'That was a good feeling. Hopefully we can keep that up.'
Stewart passed Jeff Gordon for the Cup points lead and became the first owner/driver to sit atop the standings since Alan Kulwicki won the Cup title in 1992.
'That stat there is pretty cool to be leading the points standings this early into the new venture,' Stewart said.
Gordon ran two laps down in his backup car most of the race and finished 26th to fall 46 points behind Stewart.
Stewart won the All-Star race, but has yet to record a points victory since leaving Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of last year, after two championships and 10 successful seasons, to become co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing.
Johnson appeared to have the race under control and was never really challenged for most of the 400-mile race. When he came in for a four-tire pit stop with 36 laps left, a faulty exchange by his crew slowed him down and dropped him back into traffic in ninth place.
Johnson took the lead for the first time on the 49th lap and twice held the lead for 67 laps. He thrashed the rest of the field about as soundly as any driver had in a race this season.
'As far as us peaking or starting to win races too soon, you can never win races too soon,' crew chief Chad Knaus said.