Miles the Monster should get into show business. Sunday’s AAA 400 Drive For Autism at Dover International Speedway was thrilling to the last lap.
Matt Kenseth, in nail-biting fashion, battled and rose victory after racing the youngsters of Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott in the closing laps. The older dog of Kenseth still had one bite left in him as he scored his first win of 2016, third at Dover and 37th of his Sprint Cup Series career. More importantly, however, the victory snaps a run of bad luck thus far for Kenseth, who had only one top-5 result before Dover.
“It was one of those days where everything lined up for us at the end of the race,” Kenseth said. “It all worked out for us. Kind of the opposite as what I feel like it’s been going the last couple months. “I wasn’t very confident I was going to be able to hold him off. [The car] just progressively kept getting looser and he was all over me. I could never really make the middle or the top [lanes] work today.”
The star of the show was the N. 42 of Larson who rubbed, scrubbed and eventually dubbed in the final laps of the AAA 400 as he came home short of his first Sprint Cup win. Coming home second, the still-winless driver scored a much-needed boost in his 2016 season.
“It was a very, very eventful race,” Larson said. “I was outside the top 20 for most of the first two runs, went a lap down, barely got the Lucky Dog. We just kept having good restarts, we took two tires to get into third to gain some track position and was able to get to the lead.”
Holding the top spot for 85 laps, Larson battled the likes of Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex, Jr. for the lead until the final restart with 35 laps to go.“From there, I knew we were the car to beat,” Larson said. “I knew I had to be patient. I could see Matt was pretty loose. I was getting away from the guys behind me. Then I think he got in the wall. I was like, ‘All right, it’s going to be me and Matt till the end.’”
In the meantime, however, Chase Elliott joined the fun in his No. 24 Chevrolet, passing Larson before falling to a career-best third-place finish.
“I was trying to get myself in a position where if they were racing, try to get a big run,” Elliott said. “Just try to choose a lane that nobody was in, which is difficult to do when those guys are side-by-side racing for the lead.
“I had a chance and didn’t get it done. That’s about as simple as it gets.”
Though the racing in the closing stages will be remembered most, it was the Big One at the Monster Mile that will steal most headlines. Occurring on a restart with 46 laps to go, then-leader Jimmie Johnson suffered a transmission issue which piled up the field as they approached Turn 1. Top contenders like Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex, Jr. were involved.
“I’ve never had a transmission do that to me,” Johnson said. “To lockout and not go across the gate and then no gear available is something I’ve never had before.”
Swallowing up more than a dozen racecars, it was a war zone as drivers attempted to avoid the mayhem.
“I didn’t see anything,” said Greg Biffle. “I just saw cars stopped in front of me and there was just no way we could stop. I don’t know if there is anything I could have done. I just tried to stop as quickly as I could. There was just no time to stop I guess.”
Kyle Busch was among the drivers who couldn’t get stopped in time, piling into the rear of Newman’s No. 31.“We’ve seen it here a few times when guys get into a wreck in Turn 2,” Busch said. “Once one car spins, it seems like 15 pile in. We weren’t having the best of days and shouldn’t have been back there.”
Kevin Harvick, who started from pole, looked to be the man to beat once again at Dover as he led 116 of the opening 120 laps before getting involved in the big crash.
Joey Logano summed it up best: “It was a Talladega crash at Dover, which we’ve seen happen a lot here.”
With a consistent amount of cautions from the drop of the flag – the most at Dover since 2007 – the most severe one of the day occurred late when Carl Edwards got turned head-first into the inside backstretch wall off the nose of Larson.
Uninjured from the wreck, Edwards said he was thankful for the SAFER barriers put in place at Dover.
“I saw Kurt [Busch] get a little loose or something, I tried to move down to give him a little more space,” Edwards said. “I didn’t know Larson was up under me and was that close. I do appreciate the SAFER barrier. That was a hard hit. I could tell [the wall] gave, I felt the hit spread out over a little bit of time.”
Tony Stewart had a massive trackbar issue on lap 344 which put the No. 14 driver behind the wall for the afternoon. Having to reach the top 30 in points by Richmond to make the Chase if he wins a race, Sunday hurt Stewart’s chances on making it happen.
With the attrition rate high, a number of surprise drivers pounced into the top 20 including Trevor Bayne, who grabbed his third top 10 of 2016 in 10th. Clint Bowyer put his HScott Motorsports into the 12th spot while Danica Patrick earned her first top-15 finish since this race one year ago.
David Ragan grabbed his best finish with BK Racing in 17th with Chris Buescher and Landon Cassill making it a double top-20 day for Front Row Motorsports.
With Michael McDowell completing the top 20, it was a strong day – not only for a number of small teams – but for the sport as a whole after one of the best Dover races in recent memory.