The Monster Mile was known just as much for a monstrous meeting this weekend as it was for on-track competition. Saturday night, NASCAR spoke with nine drivers privately, a constructive conversation but facing the reality they’ve got the closest formation to some sort of driver’s union since those movements were shut down by force in the late 1960s.
For now, it’s unofficially called a “Driver’s Council,” one reported by Motorsport.com that Denny Hamlin was at the epicenter of starting up. The full slate of participants was not released, nor was their detailed agenda as the goal appeared to keep it all quiet. Kevin Harvick, when asked afterSunday’s race, was tight-lipped about his attendance, simply calling it a “positive meeting” while Hamlin simply assured reporters the group was “diverse,” filled with winners and underdogs alike inside the weekly field of 43.
Similar to the Race Team Alliance, a union of Sprint Cup team owners formed last year, detailed information on this Council’s long-term goals will be hard to piece together. The two most obvious, based on garage talk, surround safety and competition. Drivers appeared agitated following a series of wrecks at Dover, several getting out of their cars before safety crews arrived on the scene. Some, like Jennifer Jo Cobb of the Truck Series did so because they were angry with a potential rival but others? They might have been making a statement as to the length of time it took for workers to get to their racecars. There’s a reason why safety has jumped up the priority list even though we’re 14 years removed from NASCAR’s last major death (Dale Earnhardt Sr.) Higher corner speeds this season have kept many on edge, worried about the potential crash impacts even if it’s into a life-saving SAFER Barrier. Sadly, that extra level of safety isn’t available for everyplace a racecar can hit, either. Kyle Busch’s Daytona injury, in which he broke parts of both legs hitting a SAFER-less inside wall, reminded drivers the sport they participate in is far from bulletproof.
In the meantime, competition concerns have bubbled up, representative of drivers’ frustrations over NASCAR’s new rule package. The “clean air” phenomenon, giving those out in front an extra boost, have made passing the leader under green near impossible. Aerodynamics have put a premium on qualifying; Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. started from the rear, had the fastest car and yet took nearly half the race to crack the top 10. Winning would have been a near impossibility with the way track position, combined with similar speeds, have brought side-by-side racing amongst the frontrunners to a halt.
“You couldn’t pass,” said winner Jimmie Johnson, spouting off a theme that left fans, drivers, virtually everyone associated with the sport disappointed with Dover. “You really just could not get by somebody. If they made a bobble or a mistake you could close up, but then the next set of corners, they would get back to the bottom, run a line, kind of hold you up and you couldn’t go anywhere.”
At one point during the event, during a 15-lap stretch just one position within the top 25 changed hands. That’s not going to earn NASCAR new fans, nor will it please the drivers who want to compete instead of feeling “stuck in place” for laps at a time.
At least all sides know the end result has to be better. A meeting is clearly a step in the right direction. Now, the question is simple: can anyone come up with solutions?
Through The Gears post-Dover we go...
FIRST GEAR: Johnson Makes History
Three-quarters of the way through Sunday’s race it was a disappointing Dover for Jimmie Johnson. The man who’s led more laps here than anyone else, nearly 3,000, hadn’t been out in front for a single one. Charging quickly from his 14th starting spot, he stalled out about fifth, as handling amongst the frontrunners was so equal.
“I could see the leader in most scenarios,” he said. “So it was inspiring to stay on your game in your car and stay disciplined.”
That discipline paid off with a long green-flag run late, where Johnson and fast stops by his crew let him pick off rivals slowly. First, it was Kyle Busch, then Martin Truex Jr. who faded after a strong early performance. Suddenly, Matt Kenseth broke and it was just Kevin Harvick up ahead. A series of late cautions, combined with some strong restarts versus Harvick and suddenly, Dover’s nine-time winner upped his record to 10 in no time flat. It’s a discouraging thought for those who had finally thought they’d caught the No. 48 at their best track; instead, he’ll remain the favorite to win when the Chase brings NASCAR back this fall.
“We fired off well and maintained,” he explained, running the end of the race on old tires and using track position to beat those behind him and Harvick, who pitted. “In that last restart Harvick hammered me in the back of the car, shot me in front of the 5, and once I had the racetrack to myself, we were in control then.”
Johnson’s 10th career Dover victory leaves him as just one of five Sprint Cup drivers with 10 or more at any track. The others? Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt Sr., David Pearson, Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip. It’s an exclusive crowd to be in, and at age 39, Johnson’s far from done.
SECOND GEAR: Gibbs Goes From Hero To Zero
Joe Gibbs Racing came into Sunday beefed up with high expectations. Denny Hamlin had the pole, they took four of the top-five fastest speeds in final practice and were coming off a dominating two-week sweep in Charlotte. All of a sudden, it looked like the gap had been closed on Harvick, Johnson, and their Chevy rivals as JGR entered Sunday heavy favorites.
But then, the green flag dropped and the organization promptly chose a different approach: shooting themselves in the foot. One by one, self-inflicting wounds combined with Lady Luck gone haywire turned JGR’s day into a disaster. Carl Edwards had two pit road penalties, his crew leaving a wedge wrench in the No. 19 Toyota before a speeding violation wiped out his day. Matt Kenseth saw his top-5 performance torn to pieces by a broken suspension. Kyle Busch, running solidly in third got wiped out when backmarker Brian Scott didn’t see him; the DNF left him devastated with a race that could have cut a big chunk out of his Chase deficit toward the top 30.
Suddenly, the scrappy pole-sitter Hamlin was all JGR had left in contention. But after an awkward slide back through the field, his car falling as far as 15th mid-race, Clint Bowyer bumped the No. 11 Toyota coming out of turn 2, causing a wreck that put the ill-handling FedEx car out of its misery.
“Dammit!” Bowyer said on the radio afterwards. “I tried to lift for him.” But in the end, his mistake added to a disappointing theme: the only lift JGR would get from this weekend was seeing their cars lifted up onto tow trucks. That, my friends, is why they run the races…
THIRD GEAR: Big Rebounds for Big Drivers
For drivers in need of a turnaround, the “shorter track” at the Monster Mile offered a different layout and a true opportunity to rebound. Kyle Larson was the biggest benefactor, surging to third on a series of late restarts after mired in a “sophomore slump” so bad he didn’t have a single top-5 finish through 12 races.
“We were terrible last week,” he said, 25th at Charlotte in what he felt was a low point of the season. “Really happy with how the team rebounded. Hopefully, this will transition into some momentum.”
Further down, Clint Bowyer was ninth, tying his best finish since February’s Daytona 500. On a difficult passing day, he moved up 11 spots from his 20th starting spot and had a top-5 finish in hand until the Hamlin incident zapped momentum late in the race. It’s astounding to note the former multi-race winner led just his second lap all year Sunday, still searching for his first victory since mid-2012.
FOURTH GEAR: Ford Floundering
Dover, once a stronghold for the Blue Oval crowd, became a sore spot this weekend. Only Aric Almirola finished inside the top 10, earning a season-high fifth when those around him crashed out late in the race. The next best anyone could muster was Joey Logano in 11th and Brad Keselowski in 12th. Keselowski, in particular was nasty on the radio, apologizing to crew chief Paul Wolfe after the race as Team Penske searches hard to make up a growing gap in raw speed. It was uncharacteristic Keselowski, outside the top 15 much of the day while both handling and track position were never on their side.
Roush Fenway Racing, whose difficulties have been well-documented here was even worse. Saturday, their development driver Chris Buescher won the XFINITY race but crashed into teammate Darrell Wallace Jr. to do it. (Wallace, so disgusted by the incident claimed “he wasn’t happy” Roush won and pledged to only attend Monday’s team meeting by phone). Then, during the Cup race struggling youngsters Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne spent time behind the wall for separate incidents. They were 37th and 43rd, respectively while Greg Biffle squandered a top-10 qualifying run by fading to 17th.
“I’m sorry I wrecked it,” said Bayne on the radio after the race. Sorry, at this point may not be good enough with no top-15 finishes through the regular season’s first half.
At least one team found it suspect Jimmie Johnson slammed into the outside wall after the race, slightly damaging the No. 48 before promptly clearing post-race inspection. “Jimmie just hit the wall with his right rear quarterpanel,” said Sam Hornish Jr.’s team on the radio. “They plan everything, don’t they?” … Kurt Busch, an innocent victim in the Denny Hamlin crash had some frustration boil over after the race. “I just knew something was going to happen today,” he said. “There was no way Dover was going to be anything proper whatsoever. The f***ing judicial system and everything else. Just perfect.” Patricia Driscoll, Busch’s ex-girlfriend saw her order of protection upheld in a Delaware court this week… Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart were among a group of drivers frustrated with Hornish at the end of the race. While the driver of the No. 9 Ford was five laps down, he mixed it up during the green-white-checkered finish with a handful of other drivers racing for position… Martin Truex Jr., sixth on Sunday has now led 357 laps in the last three races. By comparison, he led 354 laps combined during the entire 2013 and ’14 seasons.
— 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.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.