The Frontstretch: Four Burning Questions In Dover: Monster Mile Mayhem And Johnson's Return to Prominence by Matt Stallknecht -- Friday September 27, 2013

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Looks like I’m going to have to eat my own words. Last week, in this very column, I said that Matt Kenseth was doomed for a mediocre day based on his past history at New Hampshire. Boy, was I wrong. The jovial Wisconsinite instead racked up his second-straight Chase victory and made fools out of all of us who doubted him. The series is of course headed to Dover this week for Round Three of the 2013 Chase, and Kenseth’s shockingly brilliant start to the Chase is obviously a big story headed into the weekend. Despite it being a relatively slow news week (thankfully so, after certain events of weeks past), there is still much to discuss as we gear up for the AAA 400 at the Monster Mile. Could Dover’s treacherous high banks burn a key Chase contender? Is this the weekend that the No. 48 team breaks through? Can a non-chaser finally step up? The answers to those questions are just a few clicks down the page.

1. Could Dover’s high banks be something of a wild card for the Chase contenders?

Much ado is made about Talladega being the so-called “annual wild-card race” of the Chase. Due to the propensity for freakishly large multi-car accidents to break out at the facility, ‘Dega is always circled as the race that drivers have to “get past” in order to make a real championship run. What most fans and drivers tend to forget, however, is that Talladega is not the only Chase track known for experiencing “the Big One.” Alas, Talladega is not the only wild-card in the Chase.

Talladega is usually considered the wild card track but the Monster Mile has some tricks up its sleeve to catch unwary drivers too.

In this writer’s humble opinion, that second wild-card track is Dover. Dover is fast, narrow, high-banked, and relatively short. There is very little room to race on track and the track is thus incredibly frustrating to drive. This confluence of factors has historically led to some spectacularly large crashes that literally clog portions of the track. The most recent “Big One” at Dover occurred in the 2012 Spring race which collected over 10 cars.

“The Big One” is also not the only pitfall that Chase contenders will have to watch. Dover’s surface is also famously rough on right-front tires, and right-front tire blowouts are almost guaranteed to happen, and they can happen to any driver at any time without warning.

These two factors will absolutely bear watching on Sunday. Dover is a wild-card, more so than any Chase track not named Talladega, and the Chase drivers will have to race on Sunday knowing that something totally unrelated to them could end their day in a snap.

2. Will Jimmie Johnson finally make his presence known?

Midway through the 2013 season, if you asked any fan in the NASCAR world who they thought was the favorite to win the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup, the answer would have inevitably been “Jimmie Johnson.” So dominant was Johnson during the early to middle portion of the season that fans were calling in to sports talk shows proclaiming that Johnson was killing the sport.

Yet, here we are two races into the Chase, and Johnson seems to be a shell of his early season self. Despite putting together two solidly consistent top 10 runs to kick off the Chase, Johnson hasn’t been a true threat to win a race since early August. This is obviously concerning for the Johnson camp, but luckily help may be on the way in the form of the Monster Mile.

Indeed, Dover is arguably Johnson’s best race track. He has seven victories at the facility, most among active drivers, and has led more laps (2461) than any other active driver to boot. He is a man among boys at the concrete 1 mile oval. And frankly, this is his best chance to make up ground on points leader Matt Kenseth.
All told, this should be Jimmie Johnson’s time to shine this weekend. Whether or not he can deliver a win at his best race track will tell us a lot about where he and his team stand heading into the final stretch of the Chase.

3. Will a non-Chaser step up to the plate?

Every year, there is always one driver who does not make the cut for the Chase who ends up overperforming a majority of the Chase field during the final 10 races of the season. Last year, it was Kyle Busch, who delivered the third best points total of any active driver during the 10-race Chase.

Going into this year’s edition of the Chase, I picked Brad Keselowski to fill this role. So far, that pick has proven to be a bit of a bust. Keselowski has been “good not great” in the two opening Chase races. Instead, the guy who has perhaps been the most impressive non-Chaser has been Brian Vickers. Vickers delivered a strong 7th place run last week in New Hampshire and likely would have had a top 5 in Chicagoland had it not been for a sour engine late in the race.

But even still, no non-Chaser has been able to match the level of production set by Kyle Busch in 2012. This weekend in Dover, keep an eye on the non-Chasers. If a non-Chaser tears through Dover and goes on a Kyle Busch-esque streak of success, it could mean that driver is poised for big things in 2014.

4. Who will take the checkers in the AAA 400?

As was mentioned earlier, when the series rolls into Dover, Jimmie Johnson should automatically be penciled in as the favorite. The man is just absurdly productive at the facility. The only other driver who can statistically go toe-to-toe with Johnson at Dover is fellow championship contender Kyle Busch. Busch, who has surprisingly flown under the radar to some extent during the playoffs thus far, has plenty of momentum heading into the weekend on the strength of back to back top 2 finishes, and his Dover record is sterling. Busch has two wins at the track and has scored six top 10s in his past seven races there. When making your fantasy lineup this weekend, assume you are going to lose if you don’t have the No. 18 or No. 48 in your lineup.

Matt Kenseth is an intriguing pick this weekend as well, if for no reason other than his incredible wealth of momentum. Kenseth is certainly no slouch at Dover and won the Spring 2011 event. He would certainly be a safe pick to score at least a top 5 finish.

As for non-Chasers, this might just be the weekend that Brad Keselowski comes alive. Keselowski won this event one year ago and has absolutely nothing to lose by going for a win. If pit strategy becomes a factor late in the going and the No. 2 car is towards the front, the checkered flag could very well land in Bad Brad’s hands.

Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2013 AAA 400

1. 48 – Jimmie Johnson
2. 2 – Brad Keselowski
3. 18 – Kyle Busch
4. 20 – Matt Kenseth
5. 56 – Martin Truex Jr.
6. 55 – Brian Vickers
7. 1 – Jamie McMurray
8. 42 – Juan Pablo Montoya
9. 78 – Kurt Busch
10. 29 – Kevin Harvick

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JP
09/27/2013 07:50 AM
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Probably the only non-chase driver who could win, where it would actually be news-worthy, would be for Truex to win.

Otherwise, I’m gearing up for another fantastic weekend of football.

Drink up Mr. Brian France.

Bill B
09/27/2013 09:53 AM
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JP
Yep, nothing like football.
Do you think the Giants or Steelers will finally get a “W” this week?

LOL… It would be hilarious if NASCAR monitors articles like this and the comments being made and all the comments talked about the NFL.

Seriously, I have three tvs lined up. One will have the Dover race on and the other two will have football games on them.

Ken
09/27/2013 10:13 AM
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If I’m inside, the race will be on. Watch football? No way! It was rammed down my throat as a kid growing up because “all little boys watch football”. I hated it with a passion then, I hate it even more now! Nothing but a bunch of way-overpaid neanderthals bashing their heads together to move a ball up and down a field. Then they go out after the game and rape their girlfriends or shoot someone. I hate baseball (boring), basketball (just as stupid as football), and hockey (if I want to watch fights, I’ll go to a boxing match) too! No, as bad as the racing is, especially with the sport being dominated by a big phoney (Johnson), a punk (Busch), and someone who I used to cheer for when he drove a Ford, but will not cheer him in a Toyota, I still watch. I don’t enjoy it anymore, what with Ford being noncompetitive, but it is still better than any ball-and-stick sport.

Bill B
09/27/2013 11:14 AM
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Ken,
If you haven’t watched the NHL lately, there are still fights but not like there used to be.

I’m sure one of the fans of those other sports could say “If I wanted to watch a choreographed, manipulated sport, I’ll watch the WWE”.
I don’t feel that way personally, just sayin’.

babydufus
09/27/2013 11:26 AM
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i’ll pencil jj in.
is it me or does it seem like since the “new (aero sensitive) car” the racing at dover has taken a solid turn towards parade? dover used to be one of my favorites as the challenge of the track itself and it’s speed forced drivers closer to the edge than most other tracks. thoughts of being at that track and watching the cars on corner entry (even in practice) still gives me goosebumps. maybe it’s not the aero car but the iron fisted nascar rules packages where springs, gears and the like are severely limited. regardless my interest in the dover race has certainly diminished considerably.

old farmer
09/27/2013 11:38 AM
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Another Jimmy Johnson love affair column—just what I wanted to read.

DonM
09/27/2013 11:41 AM
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Its going to be a beautiful Indian Summer day here in CT sunday. Ill be out on the Harley. Football and Nascar don’t hold a candle to fall in New England.

Upstate24fan
09/27/2013 12:51 PM
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Dover is a really nasty track, I remember the big wreck in the 2007 Chase race that seemed to wipe out about half of the Chasers. If there is a wreck in pack there is nowhere to escape.

One thing I will say about NASCAR v. the NFL, it’s nice that the stories about drivers breaking the law are few and far between. Every week another NFL player gets arrested or gets hit the head by stripper with a liquor bottle.

jerseygirl
09/27/2013 02:13 PM
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the races at Dover have been a bore for quite a while. they can talk about the “monster” but he’s pretty much just a prop. Yes, they’ve had a couple of wrecks that have collected a bunch of cars – usually because someone drove like an idiot.

Not really interested in “dominating” Johnson, either columns or races. We already have tickets to this race, but if I had my choice, I’d stay home and watch paint dry, which would probably be more interesting.

kb
09/27/2013 02:14 PM
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Nascars reaction and the bully pulpit non informed “fan” base of Richmond has turned me off, as well as everybody else we know(true). So I still root for my driver in spirit, but I cannot watch, leaves a nasty feeling in my stomach. Oh yeah, thanks 5 Hour Energy! No witch hunt for you!!

Shane
09/27/2013 02:19 PM
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Of course Jimmie is back in fine form..was there ever a doubt now that JG is in the show. Come on sheep.

Rufus
09/28/2013 11:21 AM
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This whole “Spingate” garbage is just that, garbage. This crap has been going on ever since NASCAR started. Heck, the big scandal in 1956 involved Carl Kiekhaefer, the Rick Hendrick of the time, when he supposedly ordered his driver Speedy Thompson to go out and wreck Herb Thomas so that his other driver, Buck Baker, could secure the 1956 Championship. Thompson did as he was told, but Thomas was nearly killed when Thompson wrecked him. And you all think Carl Edwards is bad! Anyway, all teams have attempted to manipulate the outcome of races and the seasons, including Hendrick and Richard Childress! So, none of them are saints! The only reason there is so much of a witch hunt against MWR is because their plan screwed the biggest crybaby in the world out of a place in the final 12 that he didn’t deserve! Oh wait! I’m sorry! He did deserve it, after all, he drives for that convicted Felon! (Hey thanks to Hendrick, I dumped Honda after 25-years of being a loyal customer and switched to driving Fords in 1998, when I dumped my 1993 Accord for a ’98 Escort. I now drive a 2012 Lincoln MKZ, a car I bought 15-months ago to celebrate finalizing my third divorce, turning 60, and retiring, all within a couple of months.) Anyway, if it had not have been for involving Crybaby-Jeff, none of this would have been an issue. But, if certain fans are this upset, heaven only knows how much more they would have been screaming it was Roush and not MWR!

Oh, and Ken, I feel the same way you do about stick and ball sports, but for different reasons. Yes, Baseball is boring, and the fighting in hockey isn’t as prevalent as it used to be, but it is still there. As for basketball, well, in College, I dated a girl who played on the school women’s basketball team. She became my first wife, and she also was a total witch (I am being nice!) Five years of being married to her was all I could stand! And as for football, I used to follow college football, but never the CFL or NFL. But, when more and more of these college players came out and acted like they could hardly read, write, and speak properly, it said that they were at the school, but not in school! Show me their academic records! I haven’t watched a football game in twenty years!

P.S. Wouldn’t it be funny if Denny Hamlin accidentally had a problem and tried to catch Jimmie up in it, and he inadvertently took out Matt and Kyle instead! What would Kyle say then?

Carl D.
09/28/2013 02:50 PM
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Watch whatever sport you like. Or don’t. Yeah, Johnson should be the favorite, but that doesn’t mean I like him, I’m just a realist. Still, I’d like to Allmendinger take Dover.

Gary
09/28/2013 03:55 PM
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Boy, it takes a while to update the Breaking News section, doesn’t it?

Kind of pointless to even have it as a feature, huh?