A giant statue of Miles the Monster adorns the outside of Dover International Speedway. It’s a tribute to a nickname for this NASCAR racetrack that once treated half the field like lunch meat due to its tricky concrete surface.
Ten years from now, don’t be surprised if there’s a second statue getting erected next to Miles. That’s because of all NASCAR’s top drivers, only one has been able to stand up to him a record 10 times – Jimmie Johnson.
As the influence of Miles has waned – last year’s 18-car accident has been an anomaly at Dover as of late – the strength of Johnson at this track has remained legendary. He’s got a 33.3 percent win rate (or one out of every three starts) and has earned a top-10 finish 70 percent of the time.
The last two seasons, though have been a challenge for a team that’s been dominant here. Mechanical failures and wrecks not of their making have led to just one win and 117 laps led in the four most recent races. In some organizations, they’d beg to have those types of numbers.
For Johnson and Co.? It’s a borderline failure.
All these trends point in the direction of a rebound this weekend at Dover. After a near-miss in the Coca-Cola 600, Johnson showed the team’s capable of championship-level speed and has already won twice this season. Dover also is an important early test, a look at a playoff track where the No. 48 team will have to be on top of their game in a few short months.
Hall of Fame-level drivers are experts at turning disappointments into dominating victories the next weekend. Don’t expect Johnson to start up front but you’re a fool if you think he won’t be a factor by the time these 400 laps are up.
AAA 400 Drive for Autism
Time: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Dover International Speedway (Dover, Del.)
TV: FOX Sports 1
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Austin Dillon
Dillon’s surprise victory has been swept under the radar this week due to other off-track storylines. It shouldn’t be. The victory was momentous for a fourth-year Cup driver who finally got over the Earnhardt hump driving the legendary No. 3 car. Leading the last two laps due to pit strategy, Dillon had just enough extra fuel to outlast the rest of the pack.
The win wiped out a sorry start for a team that is already on its third crew chief through 12 races. (Full-timer Slugger Labbe, after a one-race internal suspension for a post-race inspection failure, left RCR last month). Middle-class RCR is now overachieving, locking two of their three cars in the playoffs at a time other, bigger organizations (see: Joe Gibbs Racing) have no wins yet this season.
Who’s at the Back: Chase Elliott
Ruh-roh. Is one of the sport’s super sophomores, oh-so-close to his first victory this season headed towards a slump instead? Elliott’s pretty much already there, earning four straight finishes outside the top 20 and cratering with Sunday’s ugly wreck after sliding through debris in the Coca-Cola 600.
Last summer, he went through a similar funk as a rookie but had enough cushion to make the playoffs. Wins like Dillon’s, though mean a little less postseason protection in 2017 should Elliott shovel deeper into this hole.
Jeffrey Earnhardt surprised observers Friday morning with an unexpected sponsorship announcement with Hulu. The streaming company is going to back his small-time No. 33 Chevrolet for 19 of 24 regular-season races the rest of the year. Will this be the funding needed to boost the next-generation Earnhardt into contention?
On the other side of the coin, Kasey Kahne found out this week he’s losing Great Clips as a sponsor at the end of the season. The news means at least 22 races of inventory need to be sold for Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 car next season. The veteran is signed through 2018 but the contract could get bought out if financial backing becomes an issue.
Overnight ratings for both the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 were down 13 percent. It was a disappointing result to swallow after Memorial Day Sunday, always one of the biggest racing weekends of the year.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led by Kyle Busch, the second most of any driver in Cup this season aside from Martin Truex Jr. Busch, though has yet to win a points-paying Cup event in 2017.
Laps led by Kasey Kahne since the 2016 Daytona 500. The Hendrick Motorsports driver went through the entire 2016 season without leading a lap.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Johnson. Johnson. Johnson. Need we say more?
If, for some reason you’re unable to go with the No. 48 team, hometown boy Martin Truex Jr. would run a close second. He’s got two wins at the track, including last season and hasn’t run lower than 11th with his current No. 78 program at FRR.
Kyle Larson, still in the middle tier for some fantasy programs, was fastest in practice Friday and is entering the weekend a bit of a favorite. Considering what happened last spring, when he led 85 laps and nearly ran down winner Matt Kenseth, it’s a smart move to put Larson on the roster. Charlotte’s struggles last week should be an anomaly.
I’d also throw some momentum behind the Austin Dillon camp. He earned his first-ever top-10 finish at Dover (seventh) in a Cup race last fall. The average finish is not so attractive but we’ve seen a win do wonderful things for drivers in the series. Look at Ricky Stenhouse Jr., riding a top-15 finish streak after his surprise spring win at Talladega.
Chris Buescher ran 18th and 23rd last year for an underfunded program in Front Row Motorsports. This year, the money and equipment is slightly better so you might be able to squeeze out a better result. He’s the best in a field of shoddy candidates unless you want to take a flier on the rookies: Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez, or Erik Jones.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. lead the way amongst oddsmakers with 5/1 bets according to Vegas Insider. Jimmie Johnson runs close behind at 11/2.
What I Think
How many times have we seen Johnson dominate here? It may take awhile for the No. 48 team to get up front but I’m not going to bet against them.
— 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.)