Dropping the Hammer: A Preview of the Autism Speaks 400 at Dover
After another rain-plagued weekend of racing that hampered NASCAR's second crown-jewel event of the 2009 season, the Sprint Cup gang head to Dover, Delaware for this Sunday's Autism Speaks 400 presented by Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips.
Dover International Speedway has a reputation for intense, white knuckle action that leave competitors fighting their strength and stamina around the high banks of this concrete beast.
Known as the "Monster Mile," this racing facility can be perceived as Bristol on steroids, with the behavior of a short track in close quarter racing countered by high speed, precise struggles for the optimum racing line.
It has crowned some of NASCAR's legends who have tamed the creature, like Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Sr., Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, and Mark Martin.
Young guns have also relished in their moment at Dover, like in the case of the past two spring 400 milers which saw Martin Truex, Jr. and Kyle Busch besting their competitors with dominant performances.
Just like Bristol, perhaps before its "reconfiguration" in 2007, Dover is notorious for some intense multi-car accidents.
Ask Tony Stewart, Elliott Sadler and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. just how punishing the track can be on competitors, as they were some of the drivers who were collected in an early race collision that destroyed their multi-million dollar machines.
Although it is often emphasized and repeated much like a 43 car field traversing around the myriad of ovals comprising the NASCAR ranks, the keys to success at Dover are a good qualifiying spot, an adjustable car, pit selection, and good luck when the close racing gets to the point of madness.
A good starting position will translate to priority in pit selection, which often helps a driver and team to maintain and advance position at a track where passing can be a bit of a struggle.
Now here's a look at some of the drivers who will contend and give their sponsors some excellent TV time on Sunday.
It seems rehashed that I usually write about the usual list of suspects for the race wins on the Cup side, but the truth is, the series has so far belonged to the Hendrick Motorsports program with their four wins in 12 races.
Jeff Gordon is a four-time winner at the First State's premier racing track, most notably with his three straight wins at Dover from the 1995 fall 400 miler to his season sweep at the facility in the 1996 racing season.
Although Gordon has not won here since 2001, he did place in the top 10 twice at the track in 2008 with fifth and seventh position showings in his No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet.
Jimmie Johnson has three victories to his credit in Dover, with a season sweep in his rookie campaign of 2002 and a sounding victory during the Chase of 2005.
Finishing seventh and fifth last year, the No. 48 Lowe's team looks to capture another "W" on Sunday to gain an additional 10 point bonus for their Chase seeding efforts.
Mark Martin is another four-time Dover winner, most recently conquering the track in the 2004 debacle that saw nearly every perennial contender fall by the wayside in accidents or tire failures.
If there is any driver who can handle the grueling conditions of Dover, it's the well-tuned and fitness guru master in the ageless 50-year-old Batesville, Ark. native.
Martin's former teammates at Roush-Fenway Racing also know a thing or two around Dover, as Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, and Matt Kenseth have found their way into Victory Lane at the "Monster Mile."
Edwards cruised to victory in the fall 2007 event, while Biffle has two wins to boot in the '05 spring race and last year's Chase race.
Kenseth had a sounding win at Dover in 2006, passing hard luck teammate Jamie McMurray in the closing stages of that June's 400 lap contest.
It would not be "Dropping the Hammer" if I did not have a "Dark Horse" pick for Sunday's event. This season has been the ugly duckling's year to shine.
We have seen these "Prank Callers" with some unlikely victories such as Brad Keselowski and David Reutimann's first career wins at Talladega and Lowe's, respectively.
To win at Talladega is pretty special, and Reutimann's victory at Lowe's was another example of why you need a little bit of good luck in this business.
Would it be surprising to see a first-time winner at Dover? Most certainly not, as we saw Truex, Jr. collect his debut Cup win in 2007 at the Delaware facility.
That said, I think while it is safe to say that one of those "Usual Suspects" will win, it would be pretty cool to see Marcos Ambrose win on Sunday.
Ambrose put on a great showing at Bristol, which is similar in characteristics to Dover, placing in the top-10 a few months ago at "The World's Fastest Half-Mile."
With his Michael Waltrip Racing allies still reeling in their Monday Mauling of the Coca-Cola 600, the No. 47 team could be poised to upstage the elites of the Cup lands.
And oh by the way...
By now, we are all probably sick and tired of talking about the Jeremy Mayfield story as well as the Coca-Cola 600 debacle that left fans and competitors with that soggy, expired soda taste in their mouths.
First of all, NASCAR could do itself a huge favor in lifting the dark clouds from the Mayfield saga by doing something about the racing product on the track. We all know that the Car of Tomorrow was brought onto the track to improve driver and fan safety.
No where else did we see the beauty of the COT's reason on the track than at Talladega Superspeedway last month, where unfortunately, a young high school graduate from Alabama left her first race with a broken jaw.
However, nothing more resulted from the crash other than Carl Edwards becoming the stunt double star of NASCAR, amazingly surviving the grinding crash.
I am left to wonder, though, if the features from the COT could have been implented with the previous car.
Bobby Allison, who served as the Grand Marshal for the Coca-Cola 600, has not been pleased with the COT, feeling that it has taken away from manufacturer identity, thus hurting the track attendance and fan interest in the sport.
Let's face it, fans. Can you honestly tell the difference between a Toyota Camry and a Chevrolet Impala SS on the track without looking at the car in a close view? Probably not.
In the past, there was a racing rivalry in NASCAR known as the "Aero Wars." Detroit could not have capitalized on the old "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday" ploy on fans with each manufacturer sporting some pros and cons for the competitors on the track.
It lasted until the late 1990s when the Chevrolet Monte Carlo owned the NASCAR Cup circuit in the 1995 season, carrying the General Motors colors to 21 of 31 race victories in that year's championship chase.
With some complaining and crying from the Ford and Chevy camps in the late 90s, NASCAR slowly transitioned to an aeromatching car that became greatly utilized in the 2003 season.
The Monte Carlo that year was not "redesigned" merely because its street counterpart was fixed up. NASCAR wanted all the manufacturers to essentially race the same car.
Slowly, NASCAR took it to the next phase with the COT. And while the COT has greatly improved the safety for drivers and fans, has it produced the kind of racing that has warranted the sport to be America's No. 2 sport in the country?
This Race in 1999...
Starting for the rest of the NASCAR season, I will look back on a historical race at the track that the Cup ranks will compete on each week. These will cover events from the past decade for the most part, although some old school races will also be highlighted as well.
In the 1999 MBNA Platnium 400, Bobby Labonte urged his No. 18 MBNA/Interstate Batteries Pontiac Grand Prix to the checkers by a massive 22 second victory over Jeff Gordon, whose DuPont Refinishes Chevy chugged up more fuel than Labonte's "green friendly" machine.
In a race that was dictated by fuel mileage, Labonte's teammate and rookie candidate Tony Stewart looked like he would nab his first career win until the handle went away from his No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac.
Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, Sterling Marlin, and Johnny Benson, Jr. also led some portions of the 400 miler/lap contest, which would then fall into the hands of Gordon and Evernham.
Gordon, who looked like he would greatly turnaround his wild 1999 season with a stout car and lead, did not have superior fuel mileage when most needed.
Instead of winning the race, the No. 24 team relinquished the lead with seven laps to go, handing the victory to Labonte and the Joe Gibbs Racing team to their well deserved first win of the 1999 season.
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