(Photo: Rusty Jarrett/NKP)

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2018 Gander Outdoors 400

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

Some drivers just don’t race well under pressure, letting the intensity of NASCAR’s championship battle get under their skin, and that can show up with bad luck and tough finishes snowballing.  With that playoff weight off his shoulders at Dover, Denny Hamlin scored his best finish of the season, coming home second behind Chase Elliott.  It was a boost sorely needed by Hamlin, who didn’t score a top 10 in the first round of the playoffs and was eliminated from contention after last week’s race at Charlotte.

Hamlin has never thrived under NASCAR’s playoff system in any form.  He entered the final race of the 2010 season with the point lead, only to surrender it to Jimmie Johnson before the day was out.  While never quite being a championship-caliber driver, Hamlin has nonetheless put up Hall of Fame-caliber numbers, with 31 Cup wins.  Every eligible driver with 26 or more wins is enshrined, so Hamlin has had a brilliant career by most counts.  He reminded everyone Sunday that he’s as good as anyone out there on Sundays when he’s not busy being his own worst enemy.

What… is the takeaway from this race?

This week’s race leaves a question to be answered: What happened to the Dover of old?  Dover used to be a bit of a wild-card in that wrecks could be lurking at any turn and often collected a lot of cars.  Not that there need to be wrecks to make a good race, and you can have a great one without them, but there does need to be unpredictability.  Whether that’s from getting caught in a crash, mechanical failure, or some strategy gamble, the sport needs to feel less like a foregone conclusion. And for much of the day, it felt like one.

It wasn’t that there were no twists at the Monster Mile. In fact, there were several, many coming late in the race.  Johnson didn’t even take the green flag before a ball-joint failure sent him to the garage (there’s a really good joke in there somewhere).  Clint Bowyer found himself back in the playoff hole he’d just dug out of last weekend in Charlotte. Alex Bowman crashed late as well, and several others were involved, but finished, mostly in the top 15. There were a couple of part failures, but the days of major attrition, particularly due to mechanical problems, appear to be mostly in the past.

It’s not simply that there are never crashes at Dover (and elsewhere), because there is always that risk. Dover has featured plenty of multi-car carnage over the last few years, including one on Sunday, though that one didn’t keep most cars from finishing in part because it happened so late. It’s not a lack of any one thing (and crashes are the least of what’s missing), but rather a combined lack of unpredictability, or the perception of it, that seems to be missing.

In Dover’s case, perhaps it was the decision to cut races by 100 miles in 1997. In the last 500-miler, 13 drivers failed to finish and several others finished 15 or more laps down. And a lot of the issues happened in the last 100 miles of the race and many came because of mechanical issues. The first 400-miler, later that same season, featured just four DNFs and 32 cars finishing within nine laps of the winner.

Was this race as predictable as much of the day made it seem?  No, because after a tame 300 miles, things heated up, but was that too little, too late?

Where… did Chase Elliott come from?

Elliott started in ninth after rain took qualifying off the table and had a top-10 car all day, placing fifth and ninth in the first two stages. He’s easily been Hendrick Motorsport’s best driver all year, because he’s been able to adapt to the low-downforce cars and new Camaro better than teammate Johnson.

Sunday, Elliott didn’t have a winning car, but he and his team certainly had winning strategy.  When the caution came out with just eight laps remaining, leader Aric Almirola came to pit road for four fresh tires, relinquishing five spots to teams who played other strategies and Elliott stayed out on old ones.

It was a gamble for Elliott.  Old tires don’t grip like new ones, and it’s easy to spin them on Dover’s concrete surface.  Elliott got the restart he needed, but a crash behind him meant another restart. It also caused heavy damage for some of Elliott’s best competition. Elliott had to hold off a hungry (and playoff eliminated) Hamlin, who had nothing to lose, but he executed a perfect restart and was able to clear Hamlin in Turn 2 coming to the white flag. From there, it was smooth sailing to the checkered flag and the siren cranking up at the Dawsonville Pool Hall.

Elliott is just now coming into his own as a Cup driver, and he’s a threat in the playoffs.

When… was the moment of truth?

There are two components of NASCAR that make it a unique and special sport: the racing and the people. The racing has taken a lot of criticism in recent years, some warranted, some less so, and NASCAR is making an honest effort to improve it. What will happen next year is unknown.

But the people are almost as integral to the sport and fans’ interest and engagement. In recent years as sponsors have chosen to utilize the drivers differently than in the past, a lot of that personal side has faded.  Drivers rarely sign autographs at open sessions on race weekends.  We don’t see them in silly commercials or see much of anything other than the image their sponsors or personal PR agencies allow them to be.  That overhandling has been detrimental to the sport and fans’ perception of it; in some ways every bit as detrimental as the on-track product. Drivers are often lumped together as homogenous and one-dimensional.

One of the best moments of the weekend came not on the racetrack, but in the cover of darkness Saturday night, and it featured a driver that many fans wouldn’t expect. Johnson is often accused of being too vanilla, but he reminded everyone this weekend that that’s inaccurate.  A week after he tangled with Martin Truex Jr. on the final lap at Charlotte, costing both drivers a chance for a win, Johnson had some fun with the No. 78 team.

Apparently it started then Cole Pearn, Truex’s crew chief, hinted to Johnson, an avid bicyclist, that a few road bikes for the No. 78 team would possibly take the edge off the sting. So Johnson bought them bikes.  Lots of bikes, which he delivered to the team hauler Saturday night and lined up in the lift gate for all to see. Lots of little girls’ bikes, complete with training wheels and glitter streamers on the handlebars.

The No. 78 team responded by posting a sign reading “Free bikes (tend to wheel hop).”  Johnson’s wheel hop was, of course, the cause of the consternation to begin with.  The team, and Johnson, made some young fans happy as they gifted them with new wheels. It should make the teams and drivers square on the accident, and best of all, fans got an all-too rare glimpse at the real Johnson.

There was a time when even fans who had never attended a race or met a driver felt like they knew the competitors.  That’s not the case anymore, and it desperately needs to be.  The people involved in the sport are so vital to it and if fans think they’re either too vanilla or too… the opposite, but not in a good way, they aren’t going to bother to try and know them further.  And that’s a shame, because there’s a lot more to everyone than meets the eye.  Kudos to Johnson, in the midst of a difficult week, for making light of a situation and appearing a lot more human in the process.

Why… didn’t spring Dover winner and title favorite Kevin Harvick pull it off?

Harvick probably had the best car at Dover this weekend and a front-row start to boot. He won both of the first two stages in the race, and led five times for a total of 286 laps, 222 more than his closest competitor in that category.

What kept Harvick from his eighth win of the season was a valve stem, a part worth a couple of dollars to the bank account.  They’re easy to knock off during a pit stop, and the result of that is an instant flat.  Harvick had to return to pit road to replace the tire, and that was all she wrote. Harvick finished sixth and leaves Dover with the point lead.

Harvick’s teammate, Almirola, also looked like a win might be in the cards Sunday, leading 64 laps (second best on the day). He was out front with just eight laps to go before teammate Bowyer’s crash ultimately ended both of their runs. Bowyer was as upset for Almirola as he was for himself, blaming himself for costing Almiroa twice this season, this week and earlier at New Hampshire.  It was a rough day, but Bowyer’s emotion after his issue showed not only the humanity the sport needs, but class as well.

How… pivotal could this race prove to be in the championship battle?

For the drivers who got chewed up by the Monster Mile, it could be big.  Bowyer and Bowman, in particular, have a tough row to hoe in the next two races.  Another wad of playoff drivers all suffered damage in the late melee but were able to limp to the finish, and because there were so many, they didn’t suffer as much as they might have.

As of now, Almirola, Bowyer, Kyle Larson and Bowman are below the cut line, but look for that picture to change, possibly quite drastically, next week at Talladega.

Bowman’s hole is deepest.  Unlike the other playoff hopefuls caught in the late dustup, Bowman wasn’t able to finish, and the result is a 32-point chasm to climb out of.  Talladega hasn’t been kind to Bowman, with one top 10 in six races and an average finish just below 27th.  But four of those races were with a backmarker team and he finished eighth in the spring. So there’s a glimmer of hope for a win.

That’s the thing about Talladega: it is the great equalizer in that it gives as easily as it takes.  Other than Harvick, Kyle Busch and Truex, who have enough padding in playoff points to be more or less safer than the others, and Elliott who has a bye to the Round of 8 already, Talladega could be their best friend or their worst enemy.  It’s an unenviable spot for the four teams who must have a good day or else, but for those just ahead in points, it’s not much more comfortable.

That doesn’t erase Dover’s impact, though.  Any driver who saw a chance at the win slip away Sunday should still worry because a lot can go down in two weeks.  In some ways, the first race of a round is the worst one to have issues, because it’s easier to defend points than to gain them.

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Amy is a 15-year veteran writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. Amy pens The Big 6 (Mondays) Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and Holding A Pretty Wheel (monthly - Fridays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

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