We're halfway through the Monster Mile doubleheader at Dover International Speedway. NASCAR's grand experiment of back-to-back Cup Series races concludes with a second straight Drydene 311 on Sunday.
Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag first in Saturday's Act I. A dream season for the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driver now includes his first win in 29 career starts at one of his worst tracks on the circuit.
"I think my style of driving typically doesn't fit this type of racetrack," Hamlin said after the race. "I have to adapt more to my teammates' style when I come here."
Once again, this season, it was Hamlin putting that education to use in the closing moments with a little assist from crew chief Chris Gabehart. The right setup during a long green-flag run allowed Hamlin to run down, then blow by teammate Martin Truex Jr. in the final 10 laps to seal the victory. His sixth win of 2020 has him firmly established with Kevin Harvick as one of this season's championship favorites.
"We're rolling at tracks that we just are not typically great at," Hamlin said. "That gives me confidence. Chris just dials it in, really does a good job with the racecar."
His success came on a day the Monster Mile continued to be a muted version of its former self. A one-mile oval that once ate up racecars and spit them out had an early wreck involving Kurt Busch and Erik Jones. But after that? The rest of the day went caution-free except for the scheduled competition yellow on lap 25 along with two stage breaks.
Were drivers being less aggressive knowing they had to strap in and race tomorrow? It did seem the new short track package helped the racing at Dover a little bit. Passing still remains at a premium, though with drivers sliding all over the racetrack. The closing battle for the win provided some hope tomorrow will be better, although there's an asterisk attached. The lapped car of Aric Almirola provided a little assist for Hamlin to close the gap.
"I was fine with [Almirola] running where he wanted to run," said second-place finisher Martin Truex Jr. "Which was pinned on the white line on the bottom. I had a problem with every time I'd try to move up, he would drive up the racetrack in front of me.
"Not cool to do to the leader when second is catching him. I think that's kind of sh*tty, to be honest."
Besides the lead, Dover's other big early storyline is Jimmie Johnson moving his way back into the 16-driver postseason field. Johnson, who has a NASCAR-best 11 Dover victories, climbed over teammate William Byron with a solid, consistent seventh-place finish. Byron had himself a horrible day that included a shouting match on the radio with Johnson's former crew chief, Chad Knaus. A 28th-place finish now leaves him three points out with Jones just 22 behind.
Can Johnson put the bid out of reach by ending his victory drought in Sunday's race? A win there would leave Matt DiBenedetto vulnerable; he's just 27 ahead of Byron and sitting without a win himself. The plot thickens as just two races remain in NASCAR's regular season.
Add in a questionable weather forecast (thunderstorms on the horizon) and Sunday's event should be a mightier performance from a Monster Mile fighting to remain on the schedule in 2021.
Date: Sunday, Aug. 23
Time: 4 p.m. ET
Track: Dover International Speedway (Dover, Del.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Joe Gibbs Racing
JGR had a 1-2-3 finish with Hamlin winning, Truex second and Kyle Busch third. They've earned seven top-3 finishes in the last three races, running 2-3 at Michigan International Speedway and the Daytona road course. Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott took the wins in those races, respectively but JGR wasn't far behind.
Who's at the Back: Kurt Busch
"Unbelievable." That was Busch's reaction on the radio when an errant tap from Erik Jones sent him spinning into the inside wall on the backstretch. Busch's race was over just six laps in, his first DNF since the season-opening Daytona 500. The 40th-place result was also his worst performance since the fall event at Kansas Speedway in October 2014.
Luckily, a winless Busch still retains a strong playoff cushion for Chip Ganassi Racing. He's 88 points ahead of Byron with two races left and should clinch a spot tomorrow as long as there's no back-to-back DNFs left on his resume.
Corey Lajoie will be leaving Go FAS Racing at the conclusion of the 2020 season. Lajoie confirmed the news Friday as rumors heated up the team will increase its alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2021. Lajoie sits 29th in the point standings with just a single top-10 finish this year, an eighth in the Daytona 500 season opener.
Suspended NASCAR driver Kyle Larson gave his first interview to the Associated Press since the racial slur that caused his firing from Chip Ganassi Racing. Larson claimed, "I was just ignorant" while expressing his desire to work his way back into stock car racing. Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Tony Stewart has been among those interested in potentially hiring Larson.
Jimmie Johnson might run more 2021 races after all... in IndyCar.The seven-time NASCAR Cup champion is retiring from full-time stock car racing after 2020 but is increasingly turning his attention to open-wheel racing. With proper sponsorship, the 44-year-old said he'd like to run the full road course and street schedule next year for INDYCAR and didn't rule out an Indianapolis 500 appearance come 2022.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Career top-10 finishes for Jimmie Johnson at Dover, including Saturday's seventh-place result. That's the most for him at any Cup Series track on the schedule.
Playoff spots out of 16 that have been clinched. There remain six winless drivers on the list and all of them can still be knocked out under the right circumstances.
This season's winners: Kevin Harvick (6), Denny Hamlin (6), Brad Keselowski (3), Chase Elliott (2), Joey Logano (2), Martin Truex Jr. (1), Ryan Blaney (1), Austin Dillon (1), Alex Bowman (1), Cole Custer (1)
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
For the second set of Dover races, the top 20 finishers will be inverted. That means second-place runner Martin Truex Jr. will go from second to 19th on the grid. That's all the more reason to start him for daily fantasy position differential points.
Isn't it hard to believe Truex has just one win this season? I feel like that's an undercount for how the No. 19 team has performed. Truex's three career wins at Dover are the most for him at any Cup Series track and Saturday's speed shows he's in strong position to add a fourth.
How about third-place finisher Kyle Busch? Busch started 22nd, one of his worst qualifying efforts of the year after disaster in the Daytona road course race. But he found a way to work through traffic and ended the day with a top-5 result, learning important lessons he'll put to use Sunday when starting 18th. Again, position differential points make the difference in a doubleheader and KyBu has an outside shot to break his victory drought.
I think you have to stick with Jimmie Johnson here, right? It's the final Dover start of his storied career and Johnson is desperate for that 12th career victory at the track to lock up a playoff bid. He was the fastest Chevrolet for most of the day, battling for that mantle with Chase Elliott, and appeared pretty speedy during the final stage. A 13th-place starting spot has him in better position than his main rivals tomorrow and the No. 48 team could use that track position to their advantage.
Clint Bowyer had one of his most consistent runs of the year with a sixth-place finish on Saturday. Suddenly, the No. 14 team is hitting on all eight cylinders and has three straight top-10 finishes with Bowyer at the Monster Mile. A much cheaper play than Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick should make him a much better fit for your roster.
How about rookie Christopher Bell? At times, Bell showed speed with the No. 95 Toyota at a track where he's been victorious in NASCAR's Xfinity Series. But a 22nd-place result will leave him back in the pack for Sunday's race instead of starting up front with the top-20 inversion. In the end, that could lead to bonus points as Bell will benefit from a Saturday debrief with Toyota pseudo-teammates that ran 1-2-3.
Ryan Preece is another driver who will start out back (25th Saturday at Dover) yet have a better chance at Sunday improvement. JTG Daugherty Racing teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had one of his better races of 2020, flexing his muscle in particular over long green-flag runs to finish 10th. An updated setup could help Preece's chances while providing those precious (yep, here it comes again) position differential points.
What Vegas Thinks
The odds have not been updated for Sunday's race at press time. However, Martin Truex Jr. (+350) was the favorite of most sports books before this doubleheader began and a second-place finish will do little to change that.
What I Think
I'm going to go with Martin Truex Jr. charging to the front and taking his second win of the season. Just don't count out Kyle Busch either. At some point, the No. 18 team is going to break their bad luck jinx and simply break through.
— 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.