On the heels of the longest race of the Sprint Cup season, NASCAR's top drivers will converge on Dover International Speedway Sunday as they look to tame the Monster Mile.
Dover has been known to wreak havoc on even the best drivers, as the mile-long oval is quite unforgiving. It takes a ton of skill and a little bit of luck to win on this track since you never quite know when a big pileup is lurking around the corner.
The pressure to win races gets greater with each passing week as the Chase for the Sprint Cup quickly approaches. A number of stars have yet to win a race, so they'll do everything possible to reach Victory Lane. Even those who have already won will likely take some chances as well in order to solidify their positioning.
As the first half of the pre-Chase season reaches its conclusion, here is a look at how the field stacks up for the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks.
Where: Dover International Speedway in Dover, Delaware
When: Sunday, June 1 at 1 p.m. ET
Live Steam: Fox Sports Go
Radio: Motor Racing Network
|Starting Position||Driver||Car No.|
|13||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||88|
|16||Martin Truex Jr.||78|
|26||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||17|
Drivers to Watch
Despite Jimmie Johnson's status as a six-time Sprint Cup champion, doubt began to creep in among observers when JJ failed to pick up a single victory through the season's first 11 races. Johnson had come close on numerous occasions, but bad luck and close calls left him on the outside looking in.
After winning the pole for last week's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, he knew a golden opportunity was staring him in the face. He certainly didn't waste it, as he went on to win the race and silence his critics in the process.
In the wake of that massive win, Johnson admitted that he and the No. 48 team were feeling the pressure to take the checkered flag, according to Tom Jensen of FoxSports.com.
There has been a lot of pressure and expectations put on us as a team and a lot of things written about us and the long winless streak, but that pressure that people might see and suspect that might be wearing on us is nothing compared to the pressure we put on ourselves as a race team.
We expect a lot out of ourselves. We feel like wins have gotten away from us this year that we weren't happy about, and we also feel that there are tracks that we went to where we just had poor performances. So the win is great, but we kind of hold ourselves to that standard and we're coming to one of our best tracks and the expectations are very high for this weekend.
Johnson calling Dover one of his best tracks is an understatement, as he boasts an average finish of 8.7 along with eight wins, 12 top-five finishes and 17 top-10 results in 24 tries. He almost always finds his way to the front of the field, and he has an ideal starting spot to do the same Sunday at No. 4.
Now that the pressure of needing a win to make the Chase is gone, Johnson is a confident and dangerous driver who could very well go on a long winning streak in the coming weeks.
Kyle Busch has experienced a quietly consistent season, and with a win already under his belt, it wouldn't be surprising to see him go for the gusto Sunday. Busch is currently third behind Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth in the points standings, so his Chase spot is fairly secure. Few drivers are more aggressive in pursuit of wins than Busch is, and that is certainly true at Dover as well.
Busch is a two-time winner at the Monster Mile to go with 12 top-10 finishes in 18 starts. That is a high success rate, which is something that the driver has grown accustomed to over the course of his career. Across all three of NASCAR's top series, nobody wins more races than Busch does.
Although he picks and chooses when to run truck races, he has now won all four of his truck starts this season after picking up a victory at Dover, per Fox Sports NASCAR:
Trucks and stock cars are totally different animals, but Busch has to have all the confidence in the world entering this race having already tasted victory. He will start on the outside of Row 1, and it wouldn't be surprising if he stays out front for essentially the entirety of the race.
The aforementioned drivers already have wins to their credit and are comfortably in the Chase for now, but one driver who doesn't have that luxury is Tony Stewart. This season has been a struggle for the three-time Cup Series champion, but all it takes is one trip to Victory Lane to turn things around.
Smoke sits a disappointing 22nd in the standings with just two top fives and four top-10 finishes. His struggles have been similar to those of Stewart-Haas teammate Kurt Busch, but the biggest difference is that Busch has won a race. His season doesn't look nearly as bad because of that, and there is no doubt that Stewart would like to put himself in that situation.
Despite his less-than-stellar Sprint Cup campaign, much of the focus regarding Stewart as of late has been on his decision to do a sprint car test run after breaking his leg in a sprint car race last year.
Even though the dangers are obvious, Stewart downplayed them, according to Jeff Gluck of USA Today:
. @Tonystewart says his sprint car test wasn’t a big deal, just him getting back to doing what he loves. Won’t say when he’ll race one.— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) May 30, 2014
There are plenty of critics against Stewart right now, but that could change if Smoke manages to win Sunday. He has mastered Dover, with three wins and 16 top-10 results to his credit. If ever there was a place for him to take the checkered flag, this might be it.
Johnson, Busch and Stewart are far from the only drivers with a legitimate chance to win the FedEx 400. In fact, several drivers on the Sprint Cup circuit have tasted victory at Dover on multiple occasions over the course of their careers.
Who will win this race?
Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman have all tamed the Monster Mile at least twice. Gordon has done so four times, and he should be racing free and easy after finally winning his first race of the season a few weeks ago.
Biffle, Kenseth and Newman have all had strong years, but they are searching for their first victories of the season. It can be argued that they are the three best drivers who have yet to win, so they will all be extremely hungry.
Fans also shouldn't sleep on Brad Keselowski, who has won at Dover in the past and has the pole position to boot. His teammates, Joey Logano, has never won a Sprint Cup race at Dover, but he has dominated the Nationwide circuit at the Monster Mile.
Perhaps the biggest dark horse is rookie Kyle Larson. He has run consistently well all season and will start fifth. A win would put a major exclamation point on what has already been a fine campaign.
There is no shortage of contenders to keep an eye on, but with a goose egg in the win column, look for Kenseth to do everything in his power to charge to the front from the No. 21 position and win this race.
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