For the first time in two months, NASCAR hosted a triple-header with all three of their top touring series staging races at the same track this weekend at Dover. The results? With all due apologies to Marvin Lee Aday (perhaps better known as Meatloaf), “two out of three ain’t bad.”
In interest of full disclosure, Dover is one of two tracks I consider my home turf, with the other being Pocono. All the great memories I have as the track first as a fan, then later as a writer, can color my feelings towards events run at the track once known as Dover Downs before becoming White Lightning and later the Monster Mile. If I grade races on a curve, those four big sweeping high bank turns at Dover have a special place in my heart. I also once got to drive a Cup car at Dover. Not in a NASCAR event of course, but at a driving school. While I might have been running at 75% of the speed the Cup cars were running Sunday, I still clearly remember the view through the windshield as those corners loomed like limestone mountains ahead, the tremendous jolt to my spine as I landed off the corners, and that constant molar shattering bumping over the seams between the concrete track segments. And of course I remember the huge relief of finding out I’d bettered the lap times of the two friends who went along with me that Monday morning in May.
As a Bill Elliott fan back in the day, Dover ended up breaking my heart on September 20th back in 1992. Elliott led 262 laps (of 500) that day, but lost the lead to Ricky Rudd on lap 475 thanks to a pit stop strategy call in Rudd’s pit. Had Elliott won that race he would have been the 1992 Winston Cup champion, though of course none of us knew that that day. But 1992 was one of those seasons when a lot of fans wished all three of the top contenders; Elliott, Davey Allison and eventual champion Alan Kulwicki, could have tied for top honors especially with Alan and Davey losing their lives to aircraft accidents the following season. Be that as it may, I recall with great nostalgia screaming myself hoarse, pumping a fist over my head each lap as Elliott whittled away at the gap between him and the No. 5 car though he came up about a half-second short of the checkers in the end. I was with a couple dozen friends who chartered a bus to make the trip to Dover that day. (A damn fine idea on Jimmy’s part given the epic and almost disgusting amount of beer we all consumed that afternoon. You think 24 cases of beer would be enough for that crowd for a single race day? We had to stop to restock on the ride home from the track.)
So how did this weekend’s trio of races stack up to those foggy memories of that weekend 26 years (sorry fellow old-timers) ago? Again, two out of three ain’t bad. (I didn’t attend the Busch race that weekend and the truck series wasn’t even a thing yet back in ’92. For many of my fellow writers here at Frontstretch, they had yet to compete in the Fallopian Tube Five Hundred yet in an attempt to be born.)
The Friday night truck races at Dover are always a balancing act. A lot of fans, particularly on the Left Coast, don’t get off work early enough on Friday evenings to catch the start of the race. But Dover doesn’t have lights and the sunset in these parts (I am about 60 miles north and slightly west of the track.) doesn’t leave much of a window. That window tightened up considerably this year with the move of Dover’s first race weekend to the first week of May rather than June. The sun sets 24 minutes earlier on May 4th (when this year’s truck race was held) than it did on June 2nd, when last year’s Truck Series race was held. That doesn’t sound significant to you? Recall at race pace the cars at Dover are running at about 23 seconds a lap that’s roughly 60 laps worth of green flag racing in an event scheduled for 200 laps.
The finish of the truck race Friday night might be described as the perfect storm (though rain didn’t arrive at the track until Sunday…of course). On one hand, you had the veteran Johnny Sauter, a long time campaigner who had once reached the NASCAR Cup level only to endure two less-than-memorable seasons. He’s done quite a bit better in the truck series over the last three years having won the title in 2016 and finishing second in the standings last year. Sauter also won at Daytona this season. Running in tight quarters behind Sauter was rookie phenom Noah Gragson who certainly appears to be headed to towards the Cup series at a rapid pace as long as there’s room at the top of the JGR ladder. He finished second at Atlanta and fifth at Martinville in the truck series. He’s also posted top-10 results in all three NXS races he’s competed in this season with a runner-up result at Richmond.
So there we had it. The seasoned gunslinger up against the New Kid in Town. The one time champion who, like Icarus, may have flown a bit too close to the sun against the kid still learning to fly. (Yes, yes, going a bit overboard with the rock song references once again. Sue me.) Battle was joined and it was well and truly fought, no quarter given and none asked for. With less than two laps to go, Gragson got inside of Sauter and made a low percentage/high risk gamble to take the lead. An older driver might have known that that move wasn’t likely to work, but Gragson had to find that out. The hard way. Trying to keep off of Sauter (not suddenly struck with altruism but seeing it was likely they both were going to wreck) Gragson tried to keep it straight as he got loose and spun himself out. Sauter, who turned 40 last week, prevailed even while a dejected Gragson laid his head in his hands and wept at having had victory so close but to have lost it and winding up with a 20th place finish. Some commenters took Gragson to task for his tears, but if you’re a race car driver (particularly a young one) only a win is satisfactory and any other result is soul-crushing. If I were a team owner and my driver finished second after a close race and came over the radio to ask if anyone knew what time the local KFC drive-thru window closed (and if that Extra-Creepy Colonel dude was working the register that night) I’d fire him. This sport is all about passion (or it was in the good old days).
Officially Satuer finished .533 seconds ahead of runner-up Matt Crafton (who is 41 years of age.)
Once he got himself composed, Gragson acquitted himself well in interviews, admitting he was at fault for his wreck and going to Victory Lane both to congratulate Sauter and to apologize for hitting him. In fact the two had swapped paint countless time in those final five laps and no apology was due though it was a classy move nevertheless. At 19 years old, Gragson has a long NASCAR career before him, while at 40 Sauter’s career is in its sunset years but for one Friday night in Dover old age and experience prevailed over youth and enthusiasm. (Or so thought this 58-year-old witness.)
Saturday offered up more of the same with teammates Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier banging and clanging into each other on the final lap of the XFINITY Series race. Both Sadler and Allgaier have had less-than-spectacular careers in the Cup series. At 43, Sadler is one of the elder statesman of the NXS series and one of those drivers you’ll rarely hear anyone say a negative thing about, including his competitors. At 32, Allgaier was once one of the promising young guns of the sport who never quite made it in the big leagues. He seems to have found his home in the NXS, where he’s finished in the top 6 in points in all eight of his fulltime NXS seasons and inside the top 5 in the standings the last three seasons. At 58, I still see Allgaier as a youngster and Sadler was born when I was a Junior in high school. Certainly I’m not old enough to be his dad, but if the Sadler’s follks were inept parents who didn’t mind me showing up with a bong and a stack of Grateful Dead records I might have once been his babysitter. (For the record they were not and thus I did not.)
Between Allgaier and Sadler, JR Motorsports managed to lead 137 of 200 laps, but on the final lap of the race the win was very much up in the air. Just like the final lap of so many races back in the Petty/Pearson/Yarborough and Earnhardt/Elliott/Wallace eras, there was a whole lot of fender banging and tires smoking out of turn four for the final time with the additional incentive of the $100.000 Dash for Cash prize open to both drivers. A hundred grand is a pretty notable prize for NXS regulars even if top Cup drivers can probably earn that much for endorsing a soft drink. But in the end what really mattered was that no quarter was given or asked for and Allgaier finally prevailed when Sadler had his car get out from underneath him yards from the finish line. The official margin of victory was .306 seconds.
Of note in that Saturday race was there were no Cup regulars gunning for the win just as the top tier drivers haven’t been able to compete in the previous three NXS events because of the Dash 4 Cash program. Who knew? When you don’t have major leaguers stinking up the show in a AAA series event, they actually have great racing and close finishes. Tyler Reddick won the NXS race at Daytona, after which Cup regulars won the next five races. The last four races have been (almost certainly because of the rules) won by series regulars. Might I suggest that the ban on Cup drivers competing in Little League races ought to be made permanent?
So how about Sunday? Another classic? Not hardly, gentle readers. It’s not like Kevin Harvick’s dominance was without precedent this season. It was clear from the moment the cars were unloaded of the trucks that Harvick’s SHS Ford was one bad mamba-jamba. His teammate Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski tried to keep Harvick honest, but when Harvick is on his game he can be an extremely dishonest type. Witness his four wins in just 11 Cup races this season. Harvick led just over half the race (201 of 400 laps) enroute to a 7.45 second margin of victory over Bowyer. Only 13 cars finished on the lead lap despite some determined driving by the also rans as they kept a wary eye towards the sky with rain threatening a very good chance the race would end prematurely shortly after the halfway mark. That margin of victory was the second largest this year trailing only behind the 11 second plus whupping Martin Truex Jr. put on the field at Fontana. Worse yet by the end of the tiresome affair even the tenth place driver was almost 20 second behind Harvick.
Still, I’m glad NASCAR didn’t throw a fake debris caution in the final 10 laps to spice things up for the finish. Perhaps the threat of more precipitation falling kept them from playing that card. If that seems a cynical outlook on my part recall that some drivers themselves have voiced similar negative sentiments about when NASCAR might toss the yellow near the end of races. Particularly when they are leading. Typically since stage racing has been introduced (and a pox upon that date as far as I’m concerned,) NASCAR will let the stage end but keep the pits closed so the presenting network can slip in a commercial break. Once the commercials are over NASCAR opens the pits and after that round of pit stops is over the TV folks cut to another break before the restart. But this week with many front runners at risk of running out of gas NASCAR opened pit road almost immediately after the segment ended. That’s all well and good if your driver was about to coast to a stop with fumes in his tank (or if they were trying to beat the weather to the halfway point) but not so good if you were one of those drivers and teams who elected to pit early to be on the safe side. I’ll also note when Kyle Busch’s car slowed dramatically up against the wall and was spewing fluids all over the track (my guess if that he exploded a rear differential and axle grease is more slippery than cat crap on tin foil) NASCAR elected not to throw a caution until almost all the other drivers were protesting the condition of the track in the profanest possible terms. Again, was the weather a consideration? I don’t know. But I do know that while NASCAR can’t always be right they need to always be consistent rather than favoring one strategy over another.
Say what you want about Dover as a race track. Some NASCAR scribes hate the place (most notably the late David Poole) but usually they cite the lack of nightlife and fine cuisine in the area (which is mainly an air force base and bean fields). I don’t see those factors as big ones in deciding on the worth of a race track on the schedule. Jezum Crowe, ladies and gents, if you want a big evening out on the town head up to South Street or Penn’s Landing in Philly. (Or New York City for that matter. I find it reasonable for you to pilot your rental cars the same distance as that weekend’s Cup race.) Whatever else you might say about it, Dover is definitely not a cookie cutter track. It’s a tough challenge of man and machine, sort of Bristol on steroids. Sunday’s race might not have been one for the record books but overall for race fans this weekend, don’t be sad, cause two out of three ain’t bad.
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