Few people have ever dominated a racetrack the way Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports manhandled Dover International Speedway. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion won 11 times in 38 starts, led over 3,100 laps and won his final points-paying race there in June 2017. Sunday's Drydene 400 (2 p.m. ET on FS1) is one of the few places Johnson remained competitive during the final few years of his career; he was third at the Monster Mile just last August.
The question now is whether that strength can carry on with his former Hendrick program. Only one of the last seven races here (Chase Elliott) has been won by HMS, their strength eclipsed by Ford's Stewart-Haas Racing (Kevin Harvick) and Toyota's Joe Gibbs Racing (Denny Hamlin). HMS led just 31 laps combined in the two events held last season, posting four top-5 finishes but failing to win a stage while Elliott crashed out in race two.
This year, the series visits Dover only once, a sad realization of how this one-mile concrete oval has lost its teeth. Once a track that ate up equipment for breakfast, only three races here in the last 10 years have resulted in double-digit caution flags. You're more likely to see an event unfold like the fall of 2019, where Kyle Larson coasted to a 1.6-second victory in a race that went caution free aside from Elliott's blown engine on lap 8.
It would be one thing if Dover's less challenging tilt resulted in better side-by-side competition. But drivers still struggle to get around this place, a lightning-fast track for its size that also suffers from the ill effects of modern-day aerodynamics. The aero push can stop a driver for laps at a time here, leaving someone stuck single file behind a slower car that's impossible to pass.
The hope is a reduction to one race per year will wake up declining fan interest in the region. (So far, so good; the track sold out its limited capacity for Sunday's race). But at the end of the day, the Monster Mile needs to deliver better racing to survive on the schedule long-term, especially as one of the sport's few independent tracks not aligned with International Speedway Corporation or Speedway Motorsports, Inc.
The question now is whether HMS, with Johnson off racing IndyCar, can own victory lane at this speedway again. This weekend would be the perfect time for Elliott to recapture that magic; the reigning Cup champ remains winless nearly halfway through the regular season. All three of his teammates have won, leaving Elliott the odd man out in a year where he's needed consistency to keep pace. The past eight races have produced more top-10 finishes for Elliott (five) than laps led (three).
New teammate Larson, a past winner here, should give Elliott a run for his money. Alex Bowman is now driving Johnson's car, gaining access to the setup that was once untouchable here. Yet the driver to watch may be William Byron, fourth here last summer and the young talent who's stepped it up most in 2021. His 10 straight top-10 finishes are the first time a HMS driver has achieved that level of success since a certain NASCAR Hall of Famer named Jeff Gordon back in 2007.
Should Hendrick stumble a bit this weekend, both Harvick and Hamlin are itching to end their winless streaks. Hamlin's goose egg is more surprising considering a whopping 75-point lead in the Cup standings, but Harvick may be better positioned to steal one Sunday after posting three straight top-10 finishes for the first time since the first three races of 2021.
Who will break through this weekend at a Monster Mile looking to rebuild its reputation as one of the sport's most difficult tracks?
Date: Sunday, May 16
Time: 2 p.m. ET
Track: Dover International Speedway (Dover, Del.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Martin Truex Jr.
Truex ran circles around the field at Darlington Raceway, leading 248 of 293 laps in a 400-mile race that ended with just nine cars remaining on the lead lap. Only runner-up Kyle Larson and third-place Kyle Busch finished within 15 seconds of his No. 19 Toyota, sweeping all three stages of a race where the outcome was rarely in doubt.
Now, Truex has edged away from the pack in a 2021 season defined by parity. He's the only multi-race winner (three wins in 12 starts), totaling up 18 playoff points while no one else has reached double digits.
Who's at the Back: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
A stronger-than-expected start from Stenhouse this season put him in playoff contention with JTG Daugherty Racing, peaking with a runner-up finish at the Bristol Dirt Race the end of March. But the bye week shunted momentum for the No. 47 program, leading to one top-15 result the last five weeks as Stenhouse has slid to 18th in points.
Darlington, aside from a 20th place finish, also included contact with Aric Almirola that left the No. 10 Ford wrecked on the backstretch.
In a rare reversal for the NASCAR appeals process, Noah Gragson's Darlington DQ was reversed this week. Gragson initially lost his fourth-place finish and $100,000 Dash4Cash bonus in the NASCAR Xfinity Series due to what officials claimed was an illegal suspension. But the JR Motorsports team appealed to the sport's Final Appeals Officer, Roger Werner, who determined the penalty was unwarranted.
Justin Haley will miss the racing at Dover this weekend due to COVID-19 protocols. The full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series driver for Kaulig Racing will be replaced by Zane Smith, making his NXS debut in the No. 11. Josh Berry will make his NASCAR Cup Series debut for Haley, replacing him in a spot start he was making for the No. 77 of Spire Motorsports.
Kyle Tilley will run a four-race schedule on NASCAR Cup Series road courses for Live Fast Motorsports. The 33-year-old sports car racer, a veteran of the IMSA WeatherTech series, will make his stock car debut at Circuit of the Americas in Austin next weekend.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Of 16 playoff spots taken up by just three teams if the season ended today: Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing.
Top-10 finishes for Ryan Newman in the first 12 races this season. That already surpasses the total he earned in 33 races last year after returning from his near-tragic Daytona 500 wreck.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
So which Hendrick driver should you choose to top your roster? Chase Elliott may have the more consistent track record, but Kyle Larson enters the race red hot. Darlington's runner-up finisher starts fourth, giving him an easy path to the front where he's led 511 laps already this season. Those bonus points could push you over the top at a place Larson won the last time he strapped in a Cup car here (Oct. 2019).
Points leader Denny Hamlin remains a level above this season when it comes to consistency. Completing all but three laps this season, his nine top-five finishes lead the series as he looks to add to that total at the Monster Mile. With more than 300 laps led (333 total) in his last three starts here, including a win, bode well for a JGR veteran hungry for his first victory of 2021.
Related: Best Dover International Speedway Drivers for DraftKings
It's now or never for the Stewart-Haas Racing duo of Aric Almirola and Cole Custer. Both drivers made the playoffs last year; both are sitting more than 75 points behind a spot with 14 races left in the regular season. Custer, in particular, has shown promise at the Monster Mile in a Cup car, running 10th and 11th in both races last summer. Considering they're starting far back on the grid, position differential points could tip the scales for your team if each driver can climb into the back half of the top 10.
Don't sleep on another SHR driver, rookie Chase Briscoe, who appears to be getting his act together as of late. Briscoe has two 11th-place finishes in his last three Cup starts and smoked the field at Dover in a NASCAR Xfinity Series race held last summer. He appears on the verge of a top-10 breakthrough with a salary that's worth it in daily fantasy formats.
Bubba Wallace is still waiting for a Cup breakthrough at Dover, a track where he ran second in an NXS race back in 2016. His career best at the Monster Mile is 20th, so why would Sunday be any different? Simple: Wallace has access to 23XI Racing co-owner Denny Hamlin's setup, making him a sleeper pick for a step up in performance.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr. has 7/2 odds after his Darlington victory, leading all Dover contenders according to vegasinsider.com. Kyle Larson sits second at 4/1 odds followed by Denny Hamlin at 6/1.
Do you believe in Jimmie Johnson's old setup? Alex Bowman is sitting at 20/1 odds driving the No. 48.
What I Think
Kyle Larson jumps in front early and leads most of the way as Hendrick returns to victory lane at the Monster Mile.
— 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 email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.