The Headline(s): 12 years after scoring his first Career Monster Energy Cup Series win at the same track in a rain-delayed race in 2007, Martin Truex Jr. ran away from the field during the final stage of Monday’s Gander RV 400 to easily score his second win of the 2019 season and 34th career NASCAR national series win. Alex Bowman, Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick and polesitter Chase Elliott rounded out the top five. It was such a blast from the past that Dover International Speedway even put a throwback car in Miles’ hands:
How It Happened: Elliott picked up right where he left off at Talladega last weekend, comfortably leading the first 40 laps until the yellow flew for NASCAR’s scheduled competition caution (heavy rains Sunday left the Dover surface green when the green flag flew Monday afternoon). Elliott and the No. 9 crew would win the battle off pit road and continue to lead the pack until the first incident of the race on lap 105, when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hit the wall in turn 1. With 15 laps remaining in the first stage, both Joey Logano and William Byron took two tires for track position and restarted as the race leaders on lap 111. Despite a lap 117 yellow for Quin Houff hitting the turn 2 wall, Logano would hold on to win the first stage.
With Logano and Byron cycled back in the ensuing pit stops, Brad Keselowski took the lead at the start of the second stage and held back a charging Elliott for 57 laps, until green flag pit stops cycled Elliott back to the race lead on lap 190. Elliott held the lead until lap 224 when teammate Bowman rocketed to the point using a high line crossover move that no car in the field could stop. Bowman’s run at the front would come a lap short, though, as Bowman ran too high in turn one on the final lap of stage two, allowing Truex to swoop in and steal the stage victory.
From there, Truex proved untouchable at the front of the field. Though the lead would cycle through to Elliott, Jimmie Johnson and Daniel Suarez from laps 320 to 348 as pit strategies varied under green, Truex was never seriously challenged for the race win over the final 160 laps.
Should You Care? It’s hard to say. While NASCAR racing on a Monday did provide many with a welcome distraction at work, the reality is Monday’s race was perhaps the most compelling example yet that NASCAR’s high downforce package, while successful in some instances on the longer intermediate ovals, is making those gains a zero-sum proposition for race tracks where the on-track product was not an issue. The package on display at Dover on Sunday made it nearly impossible for any driver to make a pass for the lead. Logano won stage one by holding off teammate Keselowski on two tires that had been through two heat cycles (Keselowski was on four). And just like Saturday’s Xfinity race, once a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota won the battle off pit road, the race was over: Christopher Bell led 44 of the final 45 laps of Saturday’s race once the No. 20 team beat Cole Custer off pit road, while Truex led 128 of the last 156 laps on Monday, only yielding the lead to cars that were attempting a long pit strategy.
It wasn’t just fans with a case of the Mondays voicing displeasure with the lack of passing up front. Top-10 finishers Harvick and Kyle Busch both had pointed comments regarding the package. And while Busch’s profane tirade to Frontstretch’s own Dustin Albino will garner more headlines, Harvick’s comments were telling:
.@KevinHarvick post-race (P4) 👇🏼
"Here's the hard thing about the package. I think that NASCAR's tried to accomplish a lot of things with one particular package, but you look at how the cars drive behind each other & from a driver's standpoint, it's hard to race them. Anywhere."
— Davey Segal (@DaveyCenter) May 6, 2019
NASCAR’s goals with the high downforce package were laudable. Intermediate ovals are the lion’s share of the current Cup schedule, and fan discontent with the racing product on those tracks has been palpable. Trying to fix that in a manner that’s consistent across all tracks to contain costs is again admirable. But what we’ve seen in 2019 is that while this package has improved things on the intermediates (tire-grating Atlanta put on a great show, while the races in both Vegas and Fontana had late-race exchanges of the lead for the checkers), some of NASCAR’s most stalwart venues are seeing their own racing suffer.
Martinsville was subject to the most dominant performance the paper clip has ever seen, with Elliott absolutely unable to pass Keselowski. Richmond saw two late-race charges against Truex fall short, with numerous drivers able to get to Truex’s bumper in the final 25 laps but unable to mount a serious charge for the win. At Dover, over the course of 400 laps, there was one just true battle for the lead that resulted in a lead change, when Bowman got past Elliott on lap 224. The rest of this race was almost entirely dictated by the race off pit road.
In a day where corporate sponsorships are drying up and the future of even the manufacturers in the sport could be questioned (pony cars are not volume-selling stock cars), cost control is important. But when those savings come at the expense of the on-track product at venues like Martinsville, Richmond and Dover, the value proposition must be questioned.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
As the FOX booth aptly noted once the checkered flag flew, Monday’s race made very clear that Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn have made a home at Joe Gibbs Racing. Between pressuring Bowman hard enough to force a mistake and steal the second stage win, and turning the final 160 laps of Monday’s race into a snoozer, the No. 19 team was the class of Monday’s field. That Truex did this coming from the back of the field only makes it more impressive.
Runner-up Bowman also came from the back to the front Monday, but more importantly, the fact that the No. 88 team was able to post a top-five finish away from the superspeedways lends a lot of credence to Bowman’s claims that his team capitalized on the Easter off-week to regroup after a rough start to 2019. Though Bowman made a self-induced error on lap 240 that cost him a stage win, Bowman’s composure for the remaining 399 laps, including being the most effective car in the field to use the high line, showed tremendous progress for the Dale Jr. protege. Monday also marked the first time Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 88 team has scored consecutive top fives since the spring of 2016.
The last spot on the podium went to Larson, who had a quiet day without incident, scoring the No. 42 team’s first top 10 since Phoenix in March, and first top five since Phoenix last November.
Kyle Busch scored his 11th consecutive top-10 finish to open the 2019 season, breaking Morgan Shepherd’s 29-year-old record.
Harvick’s fourth-place finish was his third consecutive top 10 at Dover, though it was the first time since 2017 he failed to lead more than 200 laps in the event.
With Byron finishing eighth, Hendrick Motorsports placed three cars in the top 10 for the first time since the ROVAL last September.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
Stenhouse made headlines during the initial 40-lap run as one of the fastest cars on the track, moving from 20th to 12th in the opening laps. Following pit stops and restarting eighth, all that progress went out the window, with Stenhouse dropping to 15th before slapping the wall on lap 72 with an apparent cut tire. Though Stenhouse dramatically told the team he couldn’t drive the damaged car, the No. 17 would remain on track and finish 33rd, 14 laps down.
While Logano scored a top 10 and used pit strategy to win the first stage, Team Penske had an off day, with both Keselowski and Ryan Blaney unable to resolve tight handling conditions over the course of the afternoon. Their struggles made Dover only the third race of 2019 that saw Penske place less than two cars on the lead lap at the checkers. What’s more, JGR now leads the season win column by four, as the Penske camp hasn’t scored a victory since Martinsville.
While JGR posted three cars in the top 10 at race’s end, Denny Hamlin had a rough go of it from the drop of the green, falling from the eighth position to all the way out of the top 20 during the opening stage Monday. Hamlin battled an ill-handling car all afternoon until cutting a tire and spinning on the turn 2 apron on lap 264. With damage from the incident, Hamlin limped to a 21st-place finish, only to be assisted from his car post-race after the damage filled his cockpit with exhaust:
.@dennyhamlin was being attended to by medical staff on pit road once he exited his car. Looked exhausted.
— Davey Segal (@DaveyCenter) May 6, 2019
Fortunately, Hamlin was treated and released post-race from the infield care center.
For the second week in a row, Landon Cassill and the Starcom Racing team experienced mechanical troubles; Cassill finished 11 laps down in 31st on Monday after dropping a cylinder inside the closing 30 laps of the race.
That Houff’s cut tire on lap 116 involved Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 team in a wreck for the second week in a row was bad enough, but prior to incurring that damage, the No. 77 had already been black-flagged… for failing to meet minimum speed. A performance in a Cup race on concrete a la Brent Sherman at Bristol 2006 is not an encouraging career prospect.
Matt Tifft essentially started the race two laps down after multiple failed inspections made him the first driver since Harvick at Bristol forced to take a pass-through penalty at the green flag. Tifft finished 13 laps down in 32nd, his fourth consecutive finish outside the top 25. The Cup rookie has yet to finish a race on the lead lap in 2019.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
Two of the three cars with major inspection issues finished 1-2 in Monday’s race. Image problems aside, it’s just more proof that starting at the rear really isn’t an effective penalty in 2019 Cup racing. If NASCAR is going to continue down the laser-precise road of inspections, start enforcing the pass-through penalty on a first failed inspection and end this charade of “penalties” that have no impact on the race or the offending teams. Now granted, harsher rules stifle innovation, so I’ll go back to what I’ve written earlier this season: Go to an “if it fits in the box, it races” policy. No COTs, though.
Credit where credit is due, even if for a long overdue action. The return to single-car qualifying was the most refreshing moment of the 2019 Cup Series since the 500, which saved an otherwise bleak Speedweeks. With built-in TV timeouts, nearly the entire Cup field got a plug, each driver and race team got their own shot at the track. As a result, qualifying was decided on the merits of each individual team. Even FOX benefited from the change, where their vaunted “ghost car” graphics actually served a purpose. The past is back, here’s to Friday! And even Saturdays, because both in terms of the number of cars aired on the telecast and the drivers interviewed, the Xfinity Series qualifying broadcast was FOX’s best of the season.
That doesn’t give FOX a pass for the race itself, though. Using the ghost cam as a full-screen demonstration while the race was under green was a questionable choice at best. And as one astute viewer noted, why did the telecast start using current speed as opposed to full lap speeds?
— Andrew Grega (@Gregaa03) May 6, 2019
Posting current speeds as opposed to lap speeds renders the top 20 graphics pretty much useless.
The good news: It appears the lion’s share of fans stuck around Dover and were in the stands for the 400-miler. The bad news, in terms of proportions, Dover’s crowd for a Cup race didn’t look too much better than the ARCA crowd at Nashville that Jim Utter maligned. The hours spent waiting for NASCAR to accept the inevitable and postpone Sunday’s race sparked some interesting debate on social media, including this posting that begged an important question: Is waiting for a dry track really in the best interest of race fans and racing?
Would rather see rain tires and speeds of 100mph then have rain delays and canceled races. #GanderRV400 Can’t believe weather is still dictating races with all the technology we have…. like I said 100mph would still be exciting to watch with damp conditions
— Nick Byerly (@Nick_Byerly) May 5, 2019
After seeing Monday’s race, I can’t imagine passing would be that much harder in the rain.
Speaking of tires, did anyone else notice the multiple large General Tire ads plastered all over the walls and apron at Dover? Such advertising is to be expected in the fall given that the K&N Pro Series now runs General Tires, but to see it so prominent on a weekend where all three races were run on Goodyears begs the question: Is a new tire provider on the horizon?
There was no shortage of radio transmissions expressing frustration with the inability to complete passes, even with faster race cars, but legitimate frustration with aerodynamic challenges was blurring the lines, with Cup frontrunners feeling a bit, well, entitled. Take our race winner Truex and his team as an example. It’s one thing to express this type of angst when trying to pass a competitive car (Kurt Busch finished in the top 15):
Truex having hard time getting around KuBusch: "Get the hell out of my way!!!" he says. #nascar
— Kyle McFadden (@ByKyleMcFadden) May 6, 2019
But the No. 19 team firing off on backmarkers is something else:
"You're better than @Blaney," @ColemanPressley tells @Keselowski P6
"It's unbelievable that they allow someone like that on the race track," @19ClaytonHughes tells @MartinTruex_Jr of the No. 27 @dennyhamlin spins to bring out the caution #NASCAR
— Lee Spencer (@CandiceSpencer) May 6, 2019
Yes, there’s a real disparity in both the quality of cars at the front of the Cup garage versus the back in 2019, to a level that hasn’t been seen since the 2004 field-filler era. And yes, there are more drivers with limited experience moving up to Cup faster than has been seen since at least as long as I’ve been following the sport.
The No. 27 is neither of those. Premium Motorsports has not proven to be a hazard on the Cup tour, fielding trendy up-and-comer Ross Chastain (who finished 11 laps down in 30th) full-time in addition to the part-time No. 27 entry. And on this Monday, that No. 27 was being driven by Reed Sorenson, who made his 309th Cup start in Dover. Now granted, not being in the stands Monday, I can’t comment on whether Sorenson and team were proving to be hazardous as a lapped car in this particular race. But to take shots at whether a team should be allowed on the track, especially in an era where short fields are becoming routine, comes off snotty, especially coming from a Gibbs organization that has not only won more than half of 2019’s Cup races, but has also led the charge of the last decade stomping on NASCAR’s development ranks that now, suddenly, can’t fill the Cup field with drivers adequate to race with their competitors.
Though, when this attitude is coupled with Ty Gibbs’ incident with a lapped car at Nashville in Sunday’s ARCA race, maybe it’s just a JGR thing?
Best Paint Scheme: Elliott – Not a whole lot of ground broken in terms of paint schemes this weekend at Dover, but Elliott gets the nod for two reasons. One, the gold car is an appropriate follow-up given last week’s win at Talladega. Two, not visible at Dover, but longtime NAPA store owner and race owner Bill McAnally brought a number of his K&N teams out east to prop up the car counts for the K&N East doubleheader at South Boston Saturday night. With the Waltrips in the rear-view mirror, a well-deserved shout out to NAPA for their support of racing.
— Hendrick Motorsports (@TeamHendrick) May 3, 2019
Manic Monday Platinum Record: Truex – The “hometown” driver won at Dover, on a rain-delayed Monday, in a race that saw Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet a fixture in the top five. 2007 in 2019? Just another Manic Monday…
The People’s Choice Crown Trophy: Logano – The highlight of Sunday’s rainstorm was seeing the defending Cup champion, fresh off a respectful and non-political visit to the White House, in the grandstands signing autographs for fans during the rain delay.
— Alex Hayden (@TheAlexHayden) May 5, 2019
Though I’ve gotta say, in 2019 NASCAR, there should have been 39 other drivers (or at least 36 this weekend) up there with him.
How It Rated – It was admittedly nice to have NASCAR racing on-screen while working Monday. It’s a shame the rain washed all the passing away.
What’s the Point(s) – Kyle Busch, Hamlin, Truex, Keselowski, Logano and Elliott have all locked themselves into the playoffs with their 2019 race wins. If the postseason started today, Harvick, Kurt Busch, Blaney, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, Suarez, Bowman, Ryan Newman, Larson and Erik Jones would point their way in. Johnson currently sits three points behind Jones for the cutoff spot.
Up Next: The Cup Series heads back to the Midwest for a Saturday night special under the lights at the Kansas Speedway. Coverage starts at 7:30 p.m. ET on FS1.