I used to hate the word association game they play to get you ready for the SAT. You know, those torturous questions like “Bread is to water as sky is to...” Sky is to what? I just look up at it every day and hope it doesn’t rain.
But for Dover, there’s a word association that clearly works. Altogether now; new rules are to Dover what water is to your survival. For years, no track had suffered more under the difficulties of aerodynamics than the track fondly known as the “Monster Mile.” A track that once ate up cars for breakfast now has just enough grip to keep everyone fully fendered for all 400 miles. The problem? NASCAR’s dreaded aero push keeps them from running side by side combined with a Goodyear tire combination that just can’t hit. The result is this awfully slick, one-groove track that causes a lot of separation and single-file racing, thinning out a crowd that used to tick over 150,000 for this event. Now, the local Firefly Music Festival is a potential bigger revenue booster for this independent track than a day at the races.
NASCAR needs to change that, fast or one of its big-market speedways will be down for the count. Seats have been reduced by nearly half and attendance during Friday’s rain-soaked activities was spotty. Can the Miles the Monster find his way... or face extinction in just a few short years?
2016 AAA 400 Drive for Autism
Time: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Dover International Speedway (Dover, DE)
TV: FOX Sports 1
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Austin Dillon
We’ll take a break from the typical Toyota dominance at the front of the field, the likes of which we saw again at Kansas to highlight an up-and-comer quietly salvaging his reputation. Dillon, after two ho-hum seasons in Cup running Dale Earnhardt’s former No. 3 is starting to level up toward contender. Talladega two weeks ago featured a fascinating comeback; Dillon wrecked only to fight back to third driving a car held together by duct tape. At Kansas this past weekend, chemistry between driver and crew chief “Slugger” Labbe was on display; a car that started out like junk was molded into a solid sixth-place effort by the checkered. Dillon, now solidly inside the top 10 in points has put himself in position to make the Chase.
Who’s at the Back: Kyle Larson
The much-anticipated breakout season for Larson has turned straight to breakdown status. Larson, 23, has endured some rough luck, an innocent victim of Saturday’s late-race crash at Kansas after positioning himself for a top-5 result. But overall, the third time is definitely not the charm for a guy who envisioned championship dreams ala Jeff Gordon during his third year on tour in 1995. Larson sits 22nd in points by comparison, is nursing an average finish of 22.6 (the worst of his career) and you begin to wonder if the promising talent may be better off with a change of scenery. Hey, it worked for Joey Logano.
The Earnhardt name has become a family feud of sorts between Dale Earnhardt’s widow Teresa and stepson Kerry. Teresa wants Kerry to stop using the trademark for his own company, claiming it muddles the legacy of her late husband and Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Kerry, for his part doesn’t understand why using his own last name would be a trademark infringement. I think the masses don’t get it as it’s tough to see a family wound reopened with lawyers, lawsuits and money involved.
Ryan Newman has been mum on his future but it looks increasingly likely he’ll be seeking new work for 2017. Richard Childress Racing has committed to moving Ty Dillon up to Sprint Cup but doesn’t seem to have the sponsorship for a fourth car next year. That means they’ll stick with three and it’s highly unlikely brother Ty’s brother Austin or Paul Menard (who comes with millions in family money) will be forced out. Add in Newman’s contract, which expires in 2016 and even Encyclopedia Brown could figure this one out.
Toyota, Toyota, Toyota. Kyle Busch’s win last Saturday night at Kansas means Joe Gibbs Racing has taken six of the year’s first 11 races. They continue to be the dominant force three months into the year.
NASCAR by the Numbers
On-track pass for the lead at Kansas under green-flag conditions. The 16 lead changes during Saturday night’s race were the lowest for an intermediate oval this year.
Sprint Cup laps led for Kyle Busch this season, the most of any driver. He also leads the series in wins (three), top-5 finishes (nine), and sits second in points. Not bad for a guy who had zeros in all those categories last year after sitting out the first 11 races due to injury.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Other than Kevin Harvick at Phoenix no driver has been more dominant at a racetrack these days than Jimmie Johnson at Dover. The six-time series champ has won seven races here since the start of the 2009 season and boasts eight top-3 finishes in the last 11 events. Last year’s 41st-place mechanical failure notwithstanding he’s as close to an automatic at any track you’re going to get. Whoever has him on the bench Sunday clearly isn’t paying attention in your league.
Harvick, for his part won Dover last fall and appears to be ticking upward at the Monster Mile. Last season produced 446 laps led, an average finish of 1.5 in two starts and well over half-million in winnings. He’s been tops in practice early in the weekend and in a race where track position is key the No. 4 car will start near the front. Don’t start him over Johnson but in a league with two “A” driver slots he’s a perfect fit.
Martin Truex Jr. is still smarting from his Kansas loss last weekend. The No. 78 team had the most dominant car only for a loose wheel to shake loose their opportunity at Victory Lane. But Dover, a hometown track for Truex, offers a shot at redemption. It’s a track where he desperately wants to win and his Furniture Row Racing team led 131 laps last spring en route to a sixth-place finish. Momentum should carry over here.
No one thinks of a guy like Jamie McMurray at Dover, and for many years the veteran did nothing special here. However, last year produced a seventh and a fourth; that continued a pattern of four top-15 finishes at Dover within the past five races. It’s not the worst pick in the world if you need to reach.
Dover is typically not a good track for underdogs but keep your eye on Landon Cassill. He scored a top-25 finish last season with a woefully underfunded team and his new digs, the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports team, have been improving as of late. A top-25 finish or top 20 isn’t out of the question here if you need a breather from starting the most-used drivers in this “lower tier” like rookies Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott. Another rookie, Brian Scott was speedy in practice and might be worth a look.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick is favored to win Sunday’s race... but just barely. The 6/1 odds edge Jimmie Johnson at 7/2 followed by Kyle Busch at 5/1. Matt Kenseth sits fourth at 8/1.
What I Think
Kevin Harvick has had enough runner-up finishes these past two years and comes in with something to prove. After Toyotas have been overshadowing his early 2016 performance I think Harvick comes out and stomps the field.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)