The Frontstretch: Four Burning Questions: Green Flag Runs, Powerhouse Duels and Bouncing Back by Matt Stallknecht -- Friday May 31, 2013

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Dover International Speedway is the site of Round 13 of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, and after this weekend we will have reached the halfway mark in the 2013 regular season. So far in 2013, it has been Joe Gibbs Racing and, to a lesser extent, Hendrick Motorsports, leading the way among teams, and there is little reason to expect that to change this weekend in Dover. While JGR and HMS continue to show their strength, many teams in the garage are scrambling to catch up while there is still time to make the Chase. Could this be the weekend we finally see the beginning signs of parity in the Cup Series? Or will the top dogs continue to distance themselves from the field? Those are just a few of the questions we will be asking as we head into Dover.

1. Will Dover be a duel between JGR and HMS?

Dover is a track that is very prone to domination. Due to the tricky concrete surface, steep banking, and overall difficulty of the track, what usually happens at Dover is that one or two teams figure something out that weekend and simply check out during the race. And can you guess which two teams tend to find this kind of success at Dover each time the series arrives there? Yup, JGR and HMS.

The two powerhouse organizations have combined to win a whopping 6 races at the facility since 2006, all courtesy of Kyle Busch (2 wins for JGR) and Jimmie Johnson (4 wins for HMS). Bearing in mind how strongly both organizations have taken to the Gen 6, history tells us that this will likely be a duel between the 18 and the 48, with Matt Kenseth’s #20 team likely figuring in as well (Kenseth himself is a two time Dover winner, both wins coming during his tenure at Roush).

Fans reading this probably are groaning at the prospect of another Gibbs and Hendrick beatdown, but I can assuage those fears just a little bit. Dover is a very finicky track when it comes to tires. We have already seen that the Gen 6 car has created some issues on tracks that are hard on the right front tires, and Dover is the poster child of such tracks. As such, tire strategy, and the various perils associated with it, could be the only thing that upsets the apple cart and prevents a Hendrick/Gibbs field whipping on Sunday.

2. How will Dover’s infamous long green flag runs affect the race?

One of the most characteristic aspects of Dover races in the Gen 5 era was long green flag runs. The COT was notoriously difficult to drive and set up for Dover, and this often led to scenarios where one driver would simply be much faster than everyone else. In addition to this, the Gen 5 era races at Dover were exceptionally clean, with 100+ lap green flag runs being very common. When these two factors were combined, it led to races where only 7-8 cars were left on the lead lap, a rarity in today’s NASCAR.

The Gen 6 races likely won’t play out exactly as the Gen 5 races at Dover did, but teams will most definitely have to be cognizant of the reality of long green flag runs occurring this weekend. While the aforementioned unpredictability of tires this weekend could bring more caution flags out than we usually see at Dover, this track is still good for at least one 100+ lap green flag run. With this in mind, drivers will absolutely have to get all they can get on restarts knowing that the leaders could easily check out and lap the field multiple times.

Beyond this, good pit stops will absolutely be paramount to success this weekend. We all saw how Brad Keselowski’s team was able to use fuel strategy to steal a win in the Fall race at Dover last year, and such meticulous pit strategy will once again be necessary in order to stay out front the whole race. Without many cautions to bunch the field up, look for green flag pit stops to be the deciding factor in who wins the race on Sunday.

Is the return of crew chief Paul Wolfe this weekend at Dover enough to pull defending champion Brad Keselowski and the No. 2 team out of the tailspin they’ve been in?

3. Could a bounce back weekend for Brad Keselowski be in order?

Setting aside Brad Keselowski’s pseudo-rookie 2010 season and the early part of his 2011 season, both time periods in which Keselowski was adjusting to the Cup Series after years in Nationwide, he has never really had a true “slump” since he first broke through with sustained success in the middle of 2011. From the time of Keselowski’s triumphant win at Pocono in 2011 with a broken leg, all the way through his 2012 championship run, and even through the early part of this season, Keselowski saw nothing but success. That all changed at Texas roughly a month ago when the penalties were announced which ultimately resulted in a suspension for longtime #2 team crew chief Paul Wolfe.

Keselowski and Co. have been on a vicious slump since that fateful weekend, a slump that has seen the team drop from 2nd to 10th in the series standings. It seems rather clear at this point that all of the distractions of the penalty (along with lost points) are what have led to this precipitous drop. So with Paul Wolfe returning to the pit box this weekend, could we see a resurgence of NASCAR’s latest championship team?

That is certainly one of the main things that the NASCAR world will be keeping an eye on this weekend. We’ve all seen the #2 team perform when times were good, but now, caught in a deep slump and reeling from a major penalty, we will get a glimpse at just what this #2 team is really made of. Most indications would suggest that Keselowski will bounce back just fine, but if they continue to struggle? That could be a sign of deeper problems at Penske, problems that could go a long way in determining how the rest of the team’s season in 2013 plays out.

4. Is Paul Menard for real?

Like he has for much of his career, Paul Menard has totally and completely flown under the radar in 2013. Despite not having delivered a single Top 5 all season long, Paul Menard has managed to drive well enough to sit 8th in points going into this weekend’s race in Dover. This is far and away the best start to a season Menard has ever had, but even 13 races in to the season, many in the NASCAR world are privately wondering whether Menard can maintain this kind of success as we edge closer to the Chase cut off.

Personally? I don’t see it happening, and this weekend’s race at Dover could provide an example as to why. The #27 team’s modus operandi for 2013 has been to conservatively ride around 10th to 15th for most of the event, miss the wrecks, and collect spots on restarts and late race scrambles. Such a conservative approach to racing can only get you so far, and tracks like Dover can take that strategy and turn it on it’s head. As referenced earlier, the long green flag runs inherent to Dover mean that a driver and team have to do everything they possibly can to run up front so as not to lose touch with the leaders. This means being aggressive, and that is not something that the #27 team is built for. And given that the late regular season run to the Chase is predicated on aggression as well, I have a hard time believing that Paul Menard will make the Chase either, for the same reasons he won’t be successful this weekend.

This weekend’s race at Dover will likely expose the #27 team for what it really is: a 15th place team with a decent driver that is overrated sitting 8th place in the standings. As such, it is up to Paul Menard and his team to really deliver a convincingly good run at Dover if they have any hope of proving to naysayers like myself that this team actually has what it takes to make the Chase.

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Bill B
05/31/2013 06:50 AM
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Don’t worry, if there is a long green flag run NASCAR will throw a fake debris caution as soon as there are only 20 cars on the lead lap. It will most likely happen during a commercial.

I have tickets to the race but am debating on whether I should go now that you’ve told me Johnson or Busch is going to win. Why bother? LOL

Annie
05/31/2013 01:48 PM
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Paul M. baffles. He is blessed by good engines, no flat tires and staying out of other peoples wrecks. The gimmicky Chase is horrible and if he gets in by those lame facts well that shows how bad it really is. He needs to hustle and put it out there like alot of other drivers do, no risk, he doesn’t push it. Two years in a row witnessed this and its annoying as heck.

GinaV24
05/31/2013 03:19 PM
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Bill, I debate the issue of go/no go for Dover every time there is a race. Not just because of the dominance of Johnson or whatever Gibbs driver is hot but because broiling in the concrete bowl while the parade laps go on and on makes me want to lay down and nap for a while & that’s hard to do in the bleachers.