The Monster Mile was overdue for a monstrous performance. Sunday, Dover delivered in a big way with one of the most unexpected and competitive races of the year. There were fireworks literally everywhere you turned in the final 100 laps, whether it was a race for the lead, jockeying for position on pit road or trying to avoid a giant melee on a restart that took out literally half the field.
Yes, Dover’s high banks finally produced a vintage performance, a reminder of why it’s still on the NASCAR schedule after years where “Miles The Monster” should have been renamed “Mediocrity.” But the storylines circling around Sunday suggested that what we saw carries an even greater level of importance. Everyone seeks a turning point that serves as the catalyst (or the catastrophe) defining their 2016 season; upwards of a half-dozen drivers may be looking back in six months and going, “This moment, this race is when my future was forever changed.”
Consider Kevin Harvick, the weekend’s most dominant car whose day was destroyed by poor pit stops. A total of 15 spots were lost on pit road at minimum, ruining his clean air and a Sunday start where he led 116 of the first 120 laps. That brought his total for the season to 688, tops in the Cup Series yet good enough for just one victory. He leads the standings by 21 points over Kyle Busch, and if the season ended now Harvick would be six points behind him for Chase round one.
As I wrote about several weeks ago, Harvick has spent the last two years suffering through these setbacks within a team that could have been a dominant force in NASCAR history. Since the start of 2015, Harvick has led nearly 3,000 laps and posted 23 top-3 finishes, yet he’s only made it to Victory Lane three times during that stretch. Dover’s destruction came during a weekend where rumors returned that Harvick is mulling an offer to leave Stewart-Haas Racing; multiple sources claimed to me at the track the driver’s been approached with an offer to move to Hendrick Motorsports equipment in 2017, a deal that could insert him straight into Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 car.
This information isn’t new to NASCAR insiders; it’s been kicked around and strongly denied by both sides. (For the record, Harvick stated this spring, “I’m in the best position I’ve ever been in. It would be pretty tough to walk out on everything we’ve built.”) No one will speak on the possibility as it’s tricky business to execute; Kahne is signed through 2018 and would have to be demoted elsewhere within the HMS chassis/engine hierarchy or have his contract bought out. Harvick, for his part would have to move without crew chief mastermind Rodney Childers who is “locked in” to his current digs at SHR. But the two weeks of calm in Charlotte give thinking time to Harvick in a contract year. It follows several weeks of pit miscues, what-could-have-beens and ground lost to rival Joe Gibbs Racing. Will Harvick look back at this race as the moment where he decided “close” no longer cut it?
“Close,” by comparison is no longer a word winner Matt Kenseth needs to worry about; Sunday, the Monster Mile gift-wrapped him some luck he’d been missing. Scooting ahead of that vicious wreck, Kenseth fended off Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott to score the victory he’s sorely needed to lock up a Chase bid during a year filled with terrible luck. Kenseth, 44, claims he’s not retiring, but with rookie Erik Jones dominating Dover on Saturday for his second XFINITY win, it’s a matter of where, not if, that youngster moves up in 2017. Clinching the No. 20 into the field calms silly talk of a Kenseth retirement, and potentially puts the pressure on Daytona winner Denny Hamlin instead; Jones has to wind up somewhere, doesn’t he?
As for Larson, his choice Sunday was to race Kenseth clean, costing himself a victory, the near-automatic Chase bid that comes with it and long-term security (or so it seems) driving the No. 42. Even Larson himself admitted afterward that second place could come back to haunt him. The third-year driver, bitten by bad luck and inconsistency, sits 21st in points, 43 outside the Chase, and has rarely shown the speed we saw Sunday throughout 2016. Having virtually all your challengers get wiped out was a huge break; it’s honorable with what’s at stake Larson made a conscious choice to play the game the right way. But if that costs him a bid, putting him 0-for-3 on postseason chances, does that mean he’ll be on course to play the game with another team?
Then there’s Jimmie Johnson, he of the busted transmission that turned the No. 48 from leader to lead car in an impromptu Demolition Derby. Whether it was a busted part or a missed shift, we may never really know, but the fact is it’s the second straight run outside the top 20 for a driver who had exactly two of those at Dover from 2002 through the spring of 2015. That’s 13 years of dominance, the cornerstone on which championships and a Hall of Fame career was built. What is happening here? Johnson, for all his push toward the front, couldn’t get there without cunning pit strategy by crew chief Chad Knaus. His six top-10 finishes through 12 races, impressive for an average driver, aren’t for this six-time champ; it’s his lowest total at this point in a season since 2003. Are we missing the beginning of the downslide on Johnson’s career? Add in the little Harvick rumor floating, the emergence of young Chase Elliott, and for the first time we may be seeing Father Time’s inevitable assault on the No. 48’s throne atop the Sprint Cup castle.
It’s a castle Austin Dillon could only hope to one day achieve. The third-year driver has impressed this year as Sprint Cup’s Most Improved, but Dover was a dubious step backwards. Brake failure sent Dillon into the wall, causing frustration over a broken part that leaked out toward the Richard Childress Racing crew (a team his family owns, I might add). Dillon followed that up by limping back out with a damaged car, becoming a roadblock on the backstretch Brad Keselowski bizarrely ran into, and wound up 33rd. One bad day? Yes. But as we saw with Kahne last year, these are the type of performances that threaten to snowball for a young driver still searching to find his way. If Dillon falls out of Chase contention this year, falling just short at Richmond it’s a race like this one that tells us why.
Miles the Monster has been waiting for far too long to play a larger role in Monday water cooler conversation. The season still has miles to go, but don’t be surprised if that conversation comes again at Homestead, looking back at a race that was a pivotal moment in the year for several of the sport’s seasoned contenders.