Dover Motor Speedway’s DuraMAX Drydene 400 presented by RelaDyne will be the first held under the new ownership of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. The one-mile oval was sold during the offseason after several years' worth of lackluster racing and attendance, making Sunday's race at the Monster Mile a monstrous moment for its future on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. SMI has never shied away from reorganizing its dozen or so dates among the racetracks it owns (remember Kentucky Speedway?) which means Dover may be next on the chopping block if it’s not careful.
Will the sport's Next Gen chassis reinvigorate the competition on what used to be one of the most challenging tracks on the circuit? Dover in the 1990s and early 2000s was a true test of survival, often referred to as Bristol Motor Speedway on steroids. One wrong move and you'd be headed toward the wall at a place where wrecks could be hard to avoid. As the race wore on, Dover would prove one of the toughest tracks on parts and pieces, leaving no lead safe and fans flocking through the turnstiles at a rate of 100,000-plus. Among the crazy endings: a 2004 event that included a 19-car wreck and Kasey Kahne later crashing out of the lead, handing the win to Mark Martin.
Those days, unfortunately, are long gone, the track losing its edge during the Gen-6 era. Instead, you're likely to get a race as sterile as last May's affair won by Alex Bowman. In that event, Bowman took the lead following a series of caution flag pit stops, nailed the restart and that was all she wrote. The track is still challenging, but often not challenging enough that drivers run the risk of losing control; they simply come up upon another car and are forced to run behind them, passing near impossible due to aerodynamics unless the driver ahead is significantly slower.
"[Bowman’s team]," said runner-up finisher Kyle Larson that day, "Just did a really good job on that pit stop and gained control of the race. I never really had a shot after that."
Never really had a shot over the final 100 laps of passing the leader? No wonder why Dover has been struggling to fill the seats in recent years.
While the track enters Sunday seeking a fresh start, Hendrick hopes to have a repeat of recent history. It was this race last year, the first 1-2-3-4 finish since the company expanded to four teams in 2002, that sparked a run of six straight victories, leaving HMS the dominant team in Cup. They're already in a better position this time around, winning four of the first 10 races of 2022 while their one winless driver, Chase Elliott, enters as the points leader.
That makes them the favorite in a race where track position and qualifying will be a large key to success. Many of the recent events here have featured long green-flag runs and it's easy to get lapped, even in the sport's stage era, if your setup is slightly off at the start.
Can one of the sport’s upstart performers, like Ross Chastain, end Hendrick's reign of dominance here? (Former HMS driver Jimmie Johnson holds the record with 11 Dover victories). Or is the combination of Elliott, Bowman, Kyle Larson and William Byron destined to find their way to victory lane?
DuraMAX Drydene 400 presented by RelaDyne
Date: Sunday, May 1
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Track: Dover Motor Speedway (Dover, Del.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Erik Jones
Jones wound up losing the Talladega Superspeedway event to Ross Chastain after making the wrong move to block coming off the final turn. But the fact he entered the white-flag lap as the leader shows how far his now two-car Petty GMS Motorsports team has come in just 10 races. Jones has led 46 laps thus far this season, 37 more than he led in all of 2021, while compiling one top-5 and three top-10 finishes in the legendary No. 43. The underdog outfit is solidly in playoff contention and could easily make it through based on points instead of an upset victory.
Who's at the Back: Harrison Burton
Brad Keselowski had a 100-point penalty this season and still has more points than the Wood Brothers rookie, who suffered his third DNF in 10 races after crashing out of Talladega. Burton still has yet to post a top-15 result in Cup and is being outrun by drivers like Corey LaJoie and rookie Todd Gilliland, both of whom have significantly fewer resources. How long will the legendary No. 21, aligned with Team Penske and searching for their 100th career Cup victory, put up with the freshman learning curve before making some internal crew changes to boost Burton’s performance?
NASCAR has announced its format for the 2022 All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway. Among the highlights: a head-to-head qualifying format that includes a four-tire pit stop and a $1 million cash prize for winning the four-stage, 125-lap race. The first three stage winners are guaranteed to start inside the top 3 for the final 50-lap segment; the fourth slot will go to the fastest pit crew that day among all remaining teams competing. The sport’s All-Star Open will be similar to past years, adding three drivers to the race who win each of its three stages before a fourth add (the Fan Vote winner) completes what would be a 24-driver field.
If reserve driver Ryan Preece is replacing Aric Almirola behind the wheel of a Stewart-Haas Racing car in 2023, he sure isn't focused on it… for now. "I wish it was as easy as some people say on Reddit or some people can kinda make it sound," he said when interviewed about the future by Frontstretch early this week. "But I promise you my day-to-day life, it's nothing but having to win races and making things happen. So that’s all I’m focused on, and it's a great opportunity." Almirola will be hanging it up at the end of 2022, leaving the No. 10 and primary sponsor Smithfield looking for a new driver.
Another Cup team has been penalized due to a wheel that came off during green-flag conditions. This time, it’s the No. 78 of Live Fast Motorsports and driver BJ McLeod, whose crew chief, jackman and rear-tire changer all received four-race suspensions after the right-rear wheel came off at Talladega.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led by Alex Bowman on route to victory last year at Dover Motor Speedway.
Laps led by Alex Bowman in the Cup Series since. However, Bowman's picked up three more victories during that span, including earlier this season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
I’d be an idiot not to list Hendrick Motorsports right at the top. The question is, who’s the best of the four to put on your roster? Kyle Larson is the best-positioned driver, at least on paper, carrying a streak of three straight podium finishes while collecting 417 laps led in his last two Dover starts alone.
Behind him, it’s worth taking a flyer on William Byron. He’s got the "worst" performance among the quartet, posting two fourth-place finishes in his last two Monster Mile starts (not so bad, right?) Byron is having a breakout season, winning two races in 2022, and is well-positioned to match that performance here at a cheaper price.
Tyler Reddick will be looking to rebound after a last-place finish at Talladega wiped out all the momentum from his near-victory in the Bristol dirt race. Expect him to be solid at a track where he posted an eighth-place finish in 2021 and has an average result of 13th in three career Cup starts.
Bubba Wallace is another driver looking for a bump after Talladega didn’t go quite as expected, ending with the No. 23 Toyota slamming the outside wall. Bubba has a decent track record here, winning in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and has a career position differential of plus-26 in Cup. That should lead to a few extra bonus points for a team that finished 11th here even during a dismal start to their 2021 season.
During an awful sophomore year for Cole Custer, he still managed to finish 10th at Dover. In fact, the third-year driver hasn’t run worse than 11th here in three career starts and has a history of success in Xfinity, winning a Dover event in that division back in 2019. Quietly, the No. 41 SHR Ford has shown a pickup in performance this season and Custer should deliver a few extra position differential and fastest-lap bonuses.
Corey LaJoie has quietly put together a better-than-average season for the Spire Motorsports outfit that’s typically near the back of the Cup garage. His Dover track record isn’t great, with no top-20 finishes in eight career starts. But LaJoie typically never finishes worse than where he starts, posting a career position differential of plus-13 and no disastrous days (losing spots in just one race). It’s a decent field filler for the back of your roster as you hope the No. 7 continues improving and squeaks out about a 20th-place run.
What Vegas Thinks
Who's got the best odds this week? Vegasinsider.com has Kyle Larson pegged at +450 followed by both Chase Elliott and William Byron at +900. Alex Bowman (+1000) makes it a top 4 Hendrick Motorsports list on top of the board.
Looking for a longshot to break through? Bubba Wallace is potentially appetizing at +10000. But Dover hasn’t been a race where Cinderellas typically shine; plan accordingly.
What I Think
Kyle Larson collects a second win of the season, one he should have earned a year ago when he dominated the race up until that final pit stop. Hendrick continues its solid performance here although it’s a race that’s hopefully more competitive than we’ve seen at Dover as of late.
— 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.
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