Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Pageantry and history were the talk of the town as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rolled into Delaware for Dover International Speedway’s 50th anniversary and 100th MENCS race at the one-mile concrete oval. Past track memories dawned the landscape, including Jimmie Johnson‘s milestone 83rd win in 2017, which tied him with Cale Yarborough for sixth on NASCAR’s all-time win list. In the midst of an 89-race winless streak since that Dover win, Johnson impressed critics as the seven-time champion ran inside the top ten throughout Sunday’s (Oct. 6) event. However, the topic of conversation was another winless streak that came to an end in the 2019 Drydene 400.
Despite just missing the pole position, a powerful and impressive performance prompted Kyle Larson to pick up his first victory since 2017. Although he led only a combined three laps during the first two stages, Larson used a quick pit stop from his Chip Ganassi Racing team at the stage two conclusion to grab the lead on lap 244. Larson held the lead until coming to pit road for a scheduled stop on lap 321. After the cycle of green-flag stops concluded, the 27-year-old found himself holding more than a six-second lead ahead of second-place Martin Truex Jr. However, that margin quickly decreased to around one and a half seconds after Larson struggled to get through a gaggle of lapped traffic with under 40 laps to go. Eventually, Larson rebounded well enough to claim a 1.578-second victory over Truex.
As the first driver to be locked into the Round of 8, Larson may be a title contender lurking in the weeds. Yet, there are many other drivers outside the playoffs who also turned heads at Dover. Matt DiBenedetto started outside the top 15 and had already lost a lap by the end of stage one. However, he used the free pass to get back in contention. In the late stages, DiBenedetto motored past some of NASCAR’s top competition to claim a solid seventh-place result, his sixth top 10 this season.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Where were the cautions? Although Dover is a track notorious for long green flag stints, only three yellow flags flew throughout the afternoon, including the two known cautions for the stage breaks. The only caution for cause came early in the contest on lap nine after Reed Sorenson radioed to his team that he had “pooped an axle out,” which littered the racetrack with debris. With the lack of cautions, only eight drivers finished on the lead lap.
With only four retirees from the race, many playoff drivers such as Brad Keselowski and William Byron failed to complete every lap. Although it has not been the fewest lead lap drivers in a race this season, these results have been very uncommon this decade. With the more recent inventions of the free pass and the wave around, NASCAR has not seen these types of results in decades. While these finishes have not been consistent, this may be a small sign that the luck of a timely caution may not be as important anymore as pure speed.
Where… were the other key players at the end?
In his 500th start, polesitter Denny Hamlin dominated the first half of the event, leading a race-high 218 laps and captured the stage one victory. However, Hamlin lacked the speed of Larson and Truex late in the going and slipped back. Additionally, Hamlin was apparently fighting possible engine issues, so bad he once communicated to his crew that he thought he may be blowing up. However, the No. 11 Toyota never did as he mustered up a respectable fifth-place result.
Like Larson, runner-up Truex ran inside the top five for most of the afternoon, but his Toyota came alive in the third stage. However, Truex had to rebound from a slow pit stop at the stage two conclusion after his rear tire changer faceplanted navigating his way to the opposite side of the car. While Truex’s and Larson’s late-race lap times were well above anyone else’s, the New Jersian had to pass five lead lap cars in the last sting, unlike Larson, which ultimately cost the No. 19.
The aforementioned Johnson had a strong run at his best statistical race track. With an eighth-place finish, Dover’s all-time win leader has scored three consecutive top 10s in his last three races. More impressively, the last time Johnson was able to do that was three years ago in the fall of 2016.
What a difference a week makes for last week’s winner, as well as defending Dover winner Chase Elliott, who was not able to complete even 10 laps Sunday. The pride of Dawsonville, Georgia blew an engine very early in the event and was relegated to a last-place result. Elliott now sits in a points deficit as the series heads to NASCAR’s most unpredictable track, Talladega Superspeedway.
When… was the moment of truth?
As it turns out, playoff drivers are not immune to mechanical failures. While modern race machines are immensely more durable than those of generations past, issues struck for many playoff teams. The aforementioned Elliott is among the several drivers that are facing an uphill battle going into Talladega. While Elliott wasn’t able to complete 10 laps, Joey Logano didn’t complete any laps before calamity hit. Logano’s points cushion was completely erased as the 29-year-old brought his Ford Mustang down pit road on the pace laps due to a rear-end problem. Crew chief Todd Gordon made the call to bring Logano’s stricken machine to the garage area to make repairs. Although he finally joined the field on lap 24, Logano now enters Talladega in a tie for the final spot in the Round of 8.
Logano’s teammate and fellow playoff driver Ryan Blaney will enter Talladega in the worst shape. Blaney missed the last quarter of the race after retiring to the garage due to a brake failure. Now, with a 22 point deficit, the chaos of Talladega is certainly not a welcome sight for Blaney.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
While Larson now has a free pass into the Round of 8, 11 other drivers are on pins and needles for the upcoming race at Talladega. If there is anything that history can prove, Talladega is a make-or-break race for every single playoff driver. Last year, Aric Almirola faced an uphill battle to vault his way into the third round. However, Almirola survived an unusually calm, but still calamity-filled race to claim a decisive victory that did end up transferring him into the next round. Almirola only led one lap. While anyone in the field has a shot to win, everyone has a shot to lose.
In 2017, only 14 drivers finished the race. Only three of those 14 were playoff drivers. The rest were taken out in Talladega notorious wrecks. One of the favorites that race was superspeedway ace and playoff driver Jamie McMurray. McMurray was proving his worth but was collected in an early crash which ultimately was the nail in the coffin for McMurray’s transfer chances. Talladega is a place where the stat book gets thrown out the window and luck might just be better than skill. Although many drivers have comfortable points cushion, it might be a safe bet to say that those might be gone after Talladega goes quiet.
How… come Dover produced so many radio issues?
At a place like Dover, two-way radio communication between driver and team is incredibly important. With constant lap traffic and the abrasive and unforgiving concrete surface, it’s vital for the spotter to protect his driver through his cautious dialogue and the driver to effectively communicate to his crew chief about the drivability of his car. However, this communication was significantly hindered for several competitors, including Johnson, Larson and Alex Bowman. Bowman’s issues were so problematic, that the No. 88 team considered swapping equipment off of the No.9 car, which was already retired from the race.
With the mounting problems, there is a reason to believe that the problems could be connected. NASCAR teams use radio communication systems that are very similar to the public radio scanners that are rented out for fan consumption at tracks. In fact, they are owned by the same company. However, even though we are in an era of technological innovation, electronics do fail. While speculation might say this problem is widespread, these issues are likely coincidental. At any given race weekend, there are thousands of radios in use. NASCAR’s innovative infrastructure efficiently supports the massive radio network, but technology is never perfect, as seen here.