Over the weeks and months, stories worthy of comment pass over my desk, and many if not most of them are not significant enough to warrant a column of their own. Thus, occasionally, I feel the need to do a little light housekeeping and gather all these Post-It notes I’ve scrawled into a bundle and send them en-masse to the circular file if, for no other reason, it beats working.
The Streak: The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series visited Dover International Speedway this weekend, down the road a piece from the hilly sylvan rural community I call home. Because the schedule has been jiggered a bit the dates don’t line up perfectly but the Dover Spring race of 2017 (in retrospect of course) was perhaps more significant than anyone considered it to be after the race itself. That Dover race held on June 4, 2017, was the last points paying race to date won by seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. Surely, I didn’t see that coming in the wake of that June race and I doubt anyone else did either. Johnson had won Cup races at Texas and Bristol that April so after the Dover race he’d won three of seven races that Spring. People were pretty much used to Johnson winning races a lot back then often on consecutive weekends. In 2017, Johnson was the reigning Cup champion but was due to finish 10th in the points in 2017, due in large part to a contrived and convoluted points system used to determine NASCAR titles as of late.
Yep, the cars changed, the points system changed and strategies became altered over time but when it came to Cup drivers some trains kept a rolling all night long but it seemed Engine No. 48 had jumped the tracks.
I doubt even his harshest detractors will claim that Johnson has forgotten how to drive. It wasn’t a points race but Johnson did, in fact, win this year’s Clash at Daytona. Other than that, the split between Johnson and former long-time crew chief Chad Knaus hasn’t worked out too well for either of them. Imagine and Band on the Run weren’t terrible albums but they weren’t Abbey Road either. Sometimes breaking up the band doesn’t yield the expected results. Perhaps Knaus should have spoken to former bandmate Ray Evernham about change first.
To be fair, Chevrolets in general and Hendrick Motorsports, in particular, haven’t been hitting on all eight over the last couple seasons after dominating the sport for the previous decade. But Johnson’s up and coming teammate Chase Elliott has now won four times since Johnson’s last victory. (And somewhere Don Henley is whistling New Kid in Town and refusing to let it be posted on YouTube). Kyle Busch has won 16 Cup events since Johnson last visited victory lane at Dover now almost two years ago. Absent a win at Kansas, Charlotte or Pocono in the coming weeks Johnson’s victory drought will, in fact, reach two full years. (Editor’s Note: This is being written Sunday afternoon after the last minute rain delay at Dover.) And for the record not only has Johnson won 11 times at Dover his career average finishing record at the track in 34 starts is a rather remarkable 9.9 leading 3105 laps in the process. So if he wins Monday’s race you can just imagine me holding up a “Dewey Beats Truman” headline right here.
When you’re the big dog and the leader of the pack, it’s tempting to stay on after the thrill is gone. Hell, even after Richard Petty won his last race at Daytona on the Fourth of July in 1984 (in front of then President Reagan who had the poor manners to show up late for the race) his career dragged on eight more agonizing years without a single win a once unthinkable set of circumstances. The final eight years of DW’s career he failed to win a single race and became almost a caricature of himself, a non-factor who often needed a previous champions provisional just to make a race.
Jeff Gordon almost got it right. He won in November of what was supposed to be his retirement year of 2015 on a magical fall evening in Martinsville. But then came back to run eight races filling in for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. If you’re going to linger late at Scarborough Fair it’s best to still pack your bags and roll while you can still tell Rosemary from parsley and sage. Thyme waits for no one.
It ain’t over until it’s over. Johnson could still rebound and win 11 races on his way to an eighth title this year but I highly doubt it.
Good Seats Still Available: As hinted at above the traditional date for the first Dover Cup race used to be the weekend after the World 600 (which, yes, is doubtless presented by some soda company or another this year and a pox upon them.)
One of the reasons Dover was shifted was because the first Pocono race was often the weekend after Dover. The thinking was fans here in the Northeast (potential ticket-buyers at least) needed a couple weeks to bang the dent that Dover had left in their wallet out a bit before buying tickets to the race at the track I will never call the Tricky Triangle because that sounds like a lame magic trip you’d see at a seedy strip club.
It ought to be interesting to see how tickets go for next year’s Pocono races when, rather than being a week after Dover, the two Pocono races are held on subsequent days, not weekends.
Home Field: From about 9 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon Dover is the closest Cup track to my home by five to 10 minutes over Pocono unless there’s another accident or more construction on the Northeast Extension of the Macadam Hell that is the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I have a great deal of affection for both tracks and have been to countless races at both over the decades once I became a newly minted driver with a junior Cinderella license to the current period where I’m often given the Senior Discount without asking (or even wanting it.) I will admit though that Dover is sort of the red-headed stepchild of the Cup schedule. I mean come on, if nothing else it’s unique a high banked concrete one-mile track not yet another cookie cutter mile and a half McRace-track.
But some members of the media over the years have just downright despised Dover. The nicest of those scribes keep their opinions to themselves about the track and the city that hosts it and choose to take the Dover race weekends off. Some, like the late David Poole of the Charlotte Observer, couldn’t help but vent his not inconsiderable spleen at Dover as if the joint was built simply to offend his less than delicate sensibilities. I recall him all but chortling as he banged out his Dover hit pieces knowing he was going to raise some hackles and piss some people off. Of course, he did so rarely while I did it routinely.
Yeah, Dover is home field to me, but like an ugly puppy, I don’t feel the need to defend it. I just keep on loving it anyway. Dover has got an Air Force Base and a stock car racing track. What lays between them is mainly strip malls, soybean fields, used car lots and traffic lights. To the north of the track is the World’s Stupidest and Most Unnecessary Tollbooth snarling entrance to Route 1 every race weekend since the racecars had whitewalls and tailfins.
While Dover has been undergoing a cultural renaissance of sorts lately (you can now buy beer on Sundays!) it’s still not a very happening place, home to around 40,000 fine folks most of whom would live elsewhere given a chance and likely will soon if they are in the Air Force. No, the area isn’t very picturesque but the cost of living is low for the Atlantic Northeast. Because the Air Base has been there so long there’s plenty of (aging) tract housing in the area where the rent is a pittance of what you’d pay in the Philadelphia suburbs. We’re talking entire neighborhoods of little houses that all look basically alike vast enough to get John Cougar Mellencamp dancing through the soybean fields despite the terrible mess that might cause.
Dance away Johnny Boy, the last couple years have yielded record soybean harvests in and around Dover, and you might as well dance because there’s not a whole hell of a lot else to do in the area. In a town (city if you wish) where Cracker Barrel and Red Lobster are the height of culinary excellence (and Cracker Barrel still won’t sell you a beer on Sunday’s or any other day of the week for that matter) watching the soybeans grow is a legitimate entertainment option especially once they roll up the sidewalks at sunset signaling the end of another day in Delaware’s capital city. Let’s just say post-card sales aren’t a huge part of the economy in the Dover area especially since word leaked out that “the Monster Mile” isn’t actually the Dover race track, it’s the trek from the track property to get through that tollbooth onto Route 1 which can turn otherwise mild-mannered sorts into Tom Capano.
Tourism is tough in Delaware anyway. Imagine working for the Chamber of Commerce in the nearby shore town of Slaughter Beach that goes by the catchy nickname of “A Horseshoe Crab Sanctuary and where fun is said to be had by some in rolling overturned horseshoe crabs on the beach back right side up before they bake to death. As our old friends Wayne and Garth once said: “Wow, I’m, in Delaware.”
Taking the Stage: I think I’ve made it abundantly clear how I feel about stages. Buick GS Stage One cars make me weak at the knees and I’ve been lucky enough to own a couple of them. Taking the Stage the Pure Prairie League live album is nearly criminally underappreciated especially by millennials who likely have never heard of the band much less the album. (Or “albums” for that matter.) But stage racing leaves me cold. Yes, I realize that the TV networks presenting these races need an occasional commercial break (though if I see the Colonel Sanders and Mrs. Butterworth ad one more time I may just hurl a Molotov cocktail through the window of the nearest KFC).
But it’s not like the networks don’t go ahead and run extended non-side-by-side commercials during green flag racing segments of the race anyhow. Things seemed to hit a new peak of futility on Saturday at Dover.
If you weren’t watching the NXS race Saturday, the 200-lap event was broken up into three stages, the first two 45 laps a piece and then, a 110-lap segment to wrap up the race. 45 laps at Dover (where lap times in the low to mid-20s are the norm) are pretty brief as it is. But after the green-white flag was displayed on lap 45 the event wasn’t green-flagged again until lap 55. There was another 10-lap break in the action between stages two and three. If I’m doing the math correctly (and there’s a very good chance I’m not) that means 22% of stage two was run under an artificial caution period.
I think it’s obvious how even a few more laps of green flag racing can totally upend the finishing order. How many times over even the last month have we heard the second or third place finisher say that they could have grabbed the win if there were two or three more green flag laps at the end of an event? If in fact there needs to be stage racing (and I’ve never heard a convincing argument that is the case) to benefit the TV folks couldn’t we at least stop counting laps run under the caution for the stage breaks?
In happier news, the multi-car qualifying format (again intended to boost TV ratings) went the way of tail-fins and whitewall tires on the race cars starting at Dover. NASCAR’s stated intention for that unholy mess was to make qualifying “more exciting.” It would seem some of the stakeholders (in this case the drivers whose butts are actually in the racecars) weren’t on board with the concept and gamed things in qualifying to their advantage (or tried to anyway) entertainment be damned. So if we can get rid of stage breaks and multi-driver, multi-round qualifying can the playoff (or whatever it’s called these days) be jettisoned next.
If we lost all three, what would we be left with? Good old automobile racing, which by its very nature, tends to be entertaining left to its own even in Dover, Delaware.