Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday September 30, 2013
Dover’s Monster Mile? More like Monster Mild. Sunday, a one-mile oval once known for chewing up Sprint Cup cars and spitting them out produced a conspicuously different type of competition. Used to a track that creates garbage, officials there spent the day collecting it as each of four yellow flags thrown were for “debris,” in the form of spring rubbers or metal caught inside the racing groove. At one point, the race ran 158 laps – almost half its 400-lap distance – without a caution, spreading out the field and leaving ill-handling entrants unable to make up lost ground. By the checkered flag, just 12 cars were left on the lead lap, the fewest of the season while only four drivers combined to lead 389 of the race’s 400 miles.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. The Monster Mile has been a misnomer for this former concrete shrine, struggling for side-by-side action in recent years while its Fall race has turned remarkably clean. The last two years, there’s been just one on-track accident while eight of the nine caution flags have been for “debris.” Fuel mileage even reared its ugly head, Brad Keselowski winning this race last Fall on gas while Clint Bowyer was prepped to perhaps do the same before that gosh darn piece of metal caused a panic upstairs.
The end result, what we’ve seen all too often these days has been predictably distressing. Attendance is declining slowly but steadily, leading to rumors of a scheduling change or even a shutdown as the fan base grows tired of the on-track product. Independent ownership, without the multi-billion dollar revenue stream of an International Speedway Corporation could be defunct without the profits of neighbor Dover Downs Casino. It’s a shocking 180, as the facility really is one of the nation’s best run (with a bizarre, search your bag for an hour incident this Spring set aside). Unfortunately, a place can only live so long on its old reputation before the present reality sends people running for the exits.
So can the Monster Mile be fixed? The problems, like at several places these days have deep roots. First and foremost is NASCAR’s Gen-6, which – while taking to the track better than the Car of Tomorrow – hasn’t increased the intensity of the racing. Lead changes have gone up, from 28 to 40 for Dover’s two events year-to-year but that statistic is somewhat misleading. After all, with green-flag stops it’s natural for the top spot to switch, like a hot potato until everyone hits pit road. A more telling sign would be looking at the cars themselves, parked pristinely inside the garage after this race. They could just as easily have been taken from the showroom instead of being put through three-plus hours of 160 MPH hell.
That leads to a point about the drivers themselves, plus their crew strategies especially during the Fall Chase event. With so much to lose, for either teammates or playoff participants drivers subconsciously tend to tone down their aggression. It’s still only the third race of ten; common sense may say otherwise, but all 13 Chasers are mathematically alive to finish first. That means at an on-the-edge, Darlington-type facility such as this one everyone’s likely to risk less in order to finish. As we saw with Carl Edwards this Sunday, whose part failure cost him 20-30 points a few laps spent in the garage can kill your chances. The Chase is so competitive, so ripe with parity these days you don’t get a mulligan anymore.
Certainly not this year, either with the trio of Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Jimmie Johnson pulling away from the field. Speaking of… it also doesn’t help how one driver has simply dominated the proceedings here in recent years. Jimmie Johnson, in setting a record for all-time Dover victories Sunday has now won five of the last ten “Monster” races, most of them in dominating fashion. And the five he lost? Almost all were due to circumstances beyond his control. This Spring, a controversial restart call was the culprit; last Fall, it was the gas tank that gave rival Keselowski an upset. The No. 48 team has laid the field to waste so much, so often it’s turned fans off to believing anyone else will ever contend. And the way he’s done it? Well, it’s been well documented Johnson isn’t the type to ruffle feathers. It’s a formulaic shellacking up front, disposing of his rivals with all the excitement of searching the Dewey Decimal System at your local library.
It didn’t used to be this way here. Dover was a crucial Fall turning point, a test of man and machine where its 500 milers reduced drivers to one simple thought process: survive. It was here where Alan Kulwicki’s title dream almost died, losing multiple cars over the course of a 1992 weekend that took his championship deficit to nearly insurmountable levels. Races here, through the ‘90s and early 2000s were half demolition derby, half endurance special as you never knew who or what would break next. As recently as 2008, when a three-way Roush Fenway battle tilted towards Greg Biffle the track was still putting together fantastic finishes.
Ever since, Dover’s been lost at sea; so somewhere, somehow they need to rekindle that magic. It’s a unique track, in a sea of cookie-cutter ovals that, when done right is exactly what NASCAR needs. But with schedule changes looming, along with its independent ownership status it’s no secret a race date could be dispensable. So whether it’s Goodyear, a new race distance, or an offseason project to widen the groove a bit Dover needs to stand up and protect itself before it’s a victim.
If nothing else, Sunday’s race showed us that. How can Mr. Miles be much of a Monster, you see when he doesn’t do much of anything at all?
Connect with Tom!
Contact Tom Bowles
©2000 - 2008 Thomas Bowles and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!