Well, New Hampshire came in like a lamb and out….like a lamb. As we enter week 3 of the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup, the question that begs is whether or not a dramatic spark will be lit to kick the sport back into gear after two weeks of general malaise. And if recent history tells us anything, Dover is not likely to be a race of high drama either given the rock hard tires that are used for this race. Whether or not the Monster Mile can deliver after a series of C-grade races is high on the list of headlines to look out for this week.
At any rate, here’s what to watch for this week in Dover.
*1. Can Denny Hamlin exorcise the demons which haunt him at Dover?*
Denny Hamlin’s struggles at Dover have been well-documented over the past few weeks. Hamlin has stated on multiple occasions that Dover is his worst track, and the No. 11 team is likely to be in full-on damage control mode as they try to scrape out a decent finish at the track.
Hamlin has obviously emerged as a leading championship contender on the strength of three wins in the last five races. But Dover Downs is Denny Hamlin’s Waterloo, and for a driver known to experience lapses in confidence, a poor run at Dover could very well torpedo Hamlin’s confidence towards winning a title. With this in mind, it is imperative that things go smoothly this week for the No. 11 team if they hope to keep up their recent run of momentum. Hamlin himself has been in constant contact with his sports psychologist all week in order to mentally prepare for this race. That right there ought to tell you how important he and his team view this week.
A top 15 run will be considered a win this week for Denny Hamlin. If he can deliver or even better that result, his title hopes (and momentum) will be as strong as ever. But if Hamlin performs as poorly here as he has in the past, it could very well derail the No. 11 team’s all important momentum. And as we all know, momentum is the biggest asset a team can possess in the Chase.
*2. Can Jimmie Johnson capitalize at his best track?*
Statistically speaking, Dover is arguably Jimmie Johnson’s best racetrack. The No. 48 team took home top honors in the spring race, and there is no doubt that Johnson will be the favorite heading into the weekend. But the question is, will they capitalize on this opportunity? The answer to that question is not as cut and dried as you may think.
If this were 2007 or 2008, most of us would have written this week off and handed the victory to the No. 48. But alas, this is 2012, and the No. 48 team of late is much more prone to giving away victories that should be theirs for the taking. One only has to look at this year’s race at Michigan to see that the No. 48 team is an awful lot less bulletproof than they were in year’s past. Thus, the No. 48 team needs to be firing on all cylinders this week at Dover, as it is likely their best chance at building a gap in the points over their rivals in the Chase (see Hamlin, Denny). Many are justifiably dubbing Johnson the championship favorite, but it would be wise of them to hold their expectations at least until we get through this week.
If Johnson and Co. don’t deliver as expected in Dover, the championship will be blown wide open. But if the No. 48 team capitalizes as expected, their road to the championship will be a whole lot easier.
*3. What kind of race will we see in Dover?*
Amidst all the complaining about certain tracks on the circuit being “ruined” in recent years (Bristol and the plate tracks certainly come to mind…), the declining quality of the racing in Dover has been largely overlooked. Newer fans may or may not remember such days, but there was a time not all that long ago when the two races at Dover were considered must-see events rife with action and drama. Dover used to be a circuit feared by drivers and loved by fans, as daring passes and treacherous beating and banging were a fixture of the Dover experience.
However, over the past few years, the ever-evolving tire compounds used by Goodyear (read: harder tires) have negatively affected Dover more so than any other track. Dover, a track where tire wear used to be paramount and passing plentiful, is now just another track position race where tires matter little. The rapidly declining attendance numbers seem to tell the whole story, but that’s a story for another day.
It’s always tough to forecast what kind of race we will see, but as stated earlier, recent history tells us track position and pit strategy will likely be the deciding factor in Sunday’s race.
*4. Will a non-Chaser please step up?*
As is the case in most years, the Chasers usually step up their game in the final ten races and roundly overshadow their non-Chase brethren on the racetrack. But usually there is at least one driver who is out of the Chase that puts together a good run in the final ten races. Last year it was Kasey Kahne, who would have in fact finished third had he actually made the Chase.
So far, none of the current non-Chasers have stepped up to the plate, and it would be in their best interest to do so as soon as possible. Guys like Aric Almirola and Bobby Labonte are on the hot seat, and a failure to perform in these next seven races could spell the end of their careers in decent equipment. As for guys like Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, the onus is on them to drum up some momentum in order to recapture their former glory in 2013. Can they make something happen? That remains to be seen, but it would be wise of them to find something to build on, or else their 2013 season may be just as miserable as it was in 2012.
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