Did You Notice? … The Monster Mile is entering a crucial weekend? Lately, races at the one-mile oval have been duds; Goodyear’s tire compound, combined with a conservative mindset have minimized the yellow flags and maximized the boredom at the one-mile oval. Dover’s track used to be one of the trickiest on tour, a matter of survival as the outside wall could come up and bite at any time.
Finally, this spring we started to see a turnaround, with the added speed from NASCAR’s new rules package turning it into more of an old school driver’s track. Rookie Alex Bowman, Jamie McMurray, and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. were just a few of the Cup guys who caused the track’s eight caution flags, causing a bit of attrition at a place that hadn’t seen much. In the fall 2013 race, by comparison there were no wrecks, just four caution flags (all for fluid or debris) and every car that failed to finish was underfunded or a virtual start-and-park.
The hope is, with NASCAR’s new rules facing a second go-round, Dover will keep tilting back toward the track of old, which once sold out grandstands of 130,000 but would be lucky to get half that Sunday. Fans have been turned off by once brutal traffic (now virtually nonexistent), single-file racing and the longtime dominance of Jimmie Johnson. J.J., who won the spring race at Dover, is the heavy favorite again for what would be a record 10th victory.
But the No. 48 team, less than dominant so far in this Chase, has showed some vulnerability. The door is open for a driver like Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. or even a Kevin Harvick to slip through and take home the trophy, a much-needed change of pace for a track whose attendance woes are well-documented. And with the aggression we saw at New Hampshire, with drivers racing on the edge for every ounce of track position, you would hope the same mindset would translate to Dover. If it doesn’t, you wonder what it’s going to take for the Monster Mile to regain its monstrous status. The best way to get fans to come back to your track is to actually have good racing to advertise; let’s hope it happens.
Did You Notice?… Two races into the Chase, Hendrick Motorsports has led a total of just 26 laps? Aside from Jeff Gordon pacing the field at Chicagoland, the HMS foursome has been largely nonexistent up front as Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have waltzed through the first two races. Particularly disappointing have been the runs of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who struggled to 11th at Chicagoland before a flat tire dropped him to ninth at New Hampshire, leaving him off the lead lap for a time before the No. 88 car fought back late. Earnhardt, along with Kasey Kahne and Gordon, the victim of a flat tire Sunday, could face potential Chase elimination with bad runs at the Monster Mile.
Is Hendrick slow-playing it, or is there a real lack of speed compared to the Penske cars? It’s hard to say. Remember, the Chase points reset for rounds two and three, meaning the object is to get to the next round in each case; it doesn’t matter if you’re first or seventh on the way there. HMS knows how to play the Chase formats well, slowly building towards a peak instead of jumping out to a big lead, early in the postseason and then holding on.
But at some point, you’ve got to flex some muscle, making the Dover weekend much more important. Kahne struggled here in the spring, running 19th while Gordon was a ho-hum 15th. Runs like that again could make them bubble drivers, believe it or not, under the right circumstances. It’s hard to believe a potential Final Four contender like Gordon sits that close, although in his defense a faulty Goodyear tire was no one’s fault; the No. 24 car was a top-5 finisher for certain at New Hampshire before that happened.
But whether it’s luck, conservatism or simply lack of speed, it’s clear Penske is now challenging for the role of title favorite. HMS can hang back behind them, for now, and then turn on the jets down the stretch, but they need to make sure they stay in the game until Homestead gets here.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
– There’s a lot of quality, championship-contending drivers breathing a sigh of relief that it was Greg Biffle, not Kyle Larson, who earned the final Chase transfer spot after Richmond. Larson, with two straight top 3 finishes, would sit inside the top 5 in points, in position to transfer to the next round while someone like a Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, or Kurt Busch would be in more serious jeopardy. Chip Ganassi’s recent resurgence is a bit of too little, too late but it should serve them well in 2015.
– Austin Dillon, 11th on Sunday, has quietly picked up the pace a bit as well during the Chase. But Richard Childress Racing as a whole, whose Ryan Newman entry is on the bubble for Chase elimination at Dover, continues to produce top 10 cars at best in what’s been a mediocre season one A.H. (After Harvick).
– Ever so quietly, with the appropriate amount of fanfare (or lack thereof) Danica Patrick has registered four straight top-20 results, easily a first in her lackluster Cup career. Crew chief Tony Gibson has quietly been building a better race team all year and the driver is finally coming up to speed along with them. Don’t be surprised if they snag a top 5 at Kansas in two weeks.
– People are pushing hard for Sam Hornish, Jr. to get a serious look at the No. 9 seat in 2015. Remember, Hornish’s former employer Roger Penske is in the Ford camp and would love to see the former IndyCar star back in the fold, albeit indirectly. But kudos for Hornish for saying publicly he won’t just take any ride to go back full-time in Cup. A family man, he’s enjoying spending time at home with his three kids and has contended for victories during a limited Nationwide Series schedule spelling Kyle Busch in the No. 54. Too often, we see stars ruin the back end of their careers by accepting rides that aren’t up to their caliber of performance. I think Hornish would be perfect with RPM, but if they don’t come calling? Don’t expect him to land anywhere else in Cup; the openings just won’t be quality enough for him.
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