Half-filled grandstands and mediocre racing have usually been the theme surrounding Dover International Speedway since the recession. Ticket prices for a day of XFINITY Series racing in the fall will be $47, on top of $65 for Sunday’s Sprint Cup matinee.
Yeah, that’s what it has been like for several years, and things have not changed.
The racing at Dover has been mediocre, sometimes even abysmal. Attendance has declined at a track that now seats 85,000 people, ridding dozens of seats in Turn 2 that lead onto the backstretch before last year’s May race.
However, Sunday’s race at Dover put an end to lackluster events at the one-mile oval, dumbfounding fans and media alike with a plethora of passing and strategy.
After rain hit the track a mere 25 minutes after the XFINITY Series race late Saturday afternoon, NASCAR made the call to throw a competition caution on Lap 40. But an outstanding pace by Kevin Harvick, who lapped 11 cars in that span, began to worry many that he would dominate the day, making the 400-mile race rather dull.
Harvick’s pit crew, however, kicked themselves in the feet. Losing 15 spots on pit road, the No. 4 car dropped outside of the top 10. Evidently, it took away not only his shot at a top 5, but mired him deep enough in the pack to be involved in an 18-car pile-up, caused by Jimmie Johnson, who claimed that he broke a transmission while shifting gears during a restart.
“As soon as I went from second and tried to go to third, I kind of got up into the neutral gate of the transmission and didn’t even go to third,” Johnson explained after the incident. “It stopped before it ever went to third. And then I tried fourth and third and fourth and eventually I got hit from behind. There was a long pause there where I was trying to, I thought maybe I missed a shift; but it wouldn’t go in gear.
Later, he elaborated on Twitter:
Today was a first for me, the shifter locked up on my shift from 2nd to 3rd. Apologies to everyone collected.
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) May 15, 2016
While this part of the race was indeed intriguing, the unforeseen circumstances at Dover were indeed not the climax of the race. Instead, competition itself culminated the 400-mile contest on Sunday.
After going a lap down prior to the second caution flag of the day, Kyle Larson worked his way back onto the lead lap. The No. 42 car showed speed he has not had in over a year, leading 85 laps on the day.
Mixing it up with Martin Truex, Jr. and Greg Biffle before the halfway point, Larson brought back memories of what Dover was before the Gen 6 racecar. His aggressive, yet clean style of racing for the lead, was quite remarkable. It elaborated on what Dover has been missing over the years, showing patterns of making fans cringe due to its lack of excitement.
With a great battle at the end of the day, Larson challenged veteran Matt Kenseth for the win. Coming up just shy, he helped put on a battle that will be on the NASCAR highlight reel for the remainder of the season.
But Sunday’s AAA 400 presented a much different monster, and it all started on Friday morning, when Danica Patrick experienced a rear-gear issue that caused teammate and car owner Tony Stewart, along with Jamie McMurray, to wreck on the frontstretch. It was just one of three practice incidents that created shocked faces on a day full of overcast skies.
The theme continued throughout the weekend.
While the Camping World Truck Series 200-mile contest lacked excitement until the concluding laps, Daniel Suarez made an exceptional attempt at edging out two-time champion Matt Crafton. Battling for the final 25 laps, the two were seen competing on multiple grooves, something that is quite rare for Dover, a track where the bottom line is usually the only way to make up ground and pass a fellow racer.
Saturday’s XFINITY Series race was rather intriguing, partially given that no single driver dominated the race. The first of two 40-lap heat races as part of the Dash for Cash program was arguably the most competitive out of all the heats that have happened this year. Heat No. 1 featured an intense battle for the lead between Justin Allgaier and Erik Jones. While this cannot be confused with the redundancy of the way the heats are set up, which has a major lack of an incentive for the main event, it was quite impressive to see two drivers having an intense fight for the pole position.
The 120-lap main event was just a warm up for Sunday’s spectacle, and one that also saw multiple grooves. Plus, it certainly did not hurt to see some great stories on Saturday, such as Alex Bowman emerging as a contender for the win, Elliott Sadler charging to the front after starting 32nd due to a restart penalty in the second heat, along with Darrell Wallace, Jr. becoming the highest finishing African American driver in NASCAR history.
Is that worth the price of admission? Well, that is debatable. Triple-A baseball tickets are not even close to the amount that Major League Baseball games will go for, but in a market desperate for money and declining attendance, prices have to be higher.
Then again, maybe if a venue lowers the prices, more people will show up, giving them a profit and looking quite awesome on television with full grandstands.
Going back to Sunday’s race, it was the perfect combination of lead changes, passes under green-flag conditions, a tire that will pop here and there, along with a slick racetrack.
Combining a tire that has some fall-off from Goodyear, along with the current aero package, NASCAR’s premier division featured what some are calling the best racing they have seen at Dover. While that may be a bit of a stretch, the 400-lap event was enticing, no matter how you look at it.
Post-race, NASCAR emphasized that the AAA 400 this weekend featured a track record 1,222 green-flag passes. Additionally, they also elaborated on the fact that the 19 lead changes during Sunday’s contest was the most at Dover since 2013, a gap of three years that were causing questions about the track’s future.
After a great weekend of racing, track officials at Dover can take a deep breath. Though grandstands still had spots of the grey seats, the facility appeared to be fuller than year’s past, a sign in the right direction as Dover looks to continue the momentum heading into the Chase race in early October.
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