Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Dover
What a difference a year makes.
The photo (above) is of a smiling (pre-accident) Tony Stewart after winning last year's spring race at Dover International Speedway. There haven't been too many smiles this year.
For the three-time champion team owner it has been a slow recovery from the serious injuries he suffered last summer in a sprint car accident. And Dover is good medicine for the No. 14 team.
Dover’s ultra-fast, all-concrete one-mile track has always been good to “Smoke.” And Dover comes at the right time for the Indiana native.
While his teammates at Stewart-Haas Racing are doing quite well they would like nothing more than to see the boss win a race and get his invite into the 2014 Chase.
Dover also comes at a good time for several drivers, including a pair from Joe Gibbs Racing, Denny Hamlin (the defending pole-sitter) and Matt Kenseth, who has two wins and an amazing 13 (!) top-fives on the concrete high banks.
Jimmie Johnson finished a lap down from the leaders last year after leading 143 laps but having an issue in the closing laps.
Johnson's win at Charlotte on Sunday was a not-too-subtle reminder to the rest of the field that the No. 48 Lowe's squad hasn't been taking it easy waiting for a win to come its way. The team went out and made sure everyone knew it was still serious by winning the longest and toughest race on the schedule.
A few other teams need to pick it up and make statements of their own.
Despite Another Runner-Up Finish, Harvick Making Moves Like a Champion
We all know that Kevin Harvick isn’t the kind of guy who likes being second. On Sunday at Charlotte, Harvick played the role of runner-up for the second points race in a row.
As he’d done two weeks earlier at Kansas, Harvick attempted to chase down the race leader as the laps wound down, only to have them run out before he could catch the race leader and eventual winner (Jeff Gordon in Kansas; Johnson at Charlotte).
At Kansas, it was a rare pit road mistake by Harvick himself (a distracted Harvick went down pit road too slow on his final pit stop). At Charlotte, it was his crew that made the mistake.
"We had a fast car all night. Just kind of fumbled again on pit road," said Harvick in the post-race press conference. "Got behind, got a lap down. We needed a 700‑mile race to get back to where we needed to be. All in all, they're doing a great job of putting cars up on the track. We just have to clean up on pit road."
In answering another reporter's question, Harvick seemed to offer that it wasn't so much as Johnson winning the race, it was that his team's mistake caused them to give the race away.
“I look at it as we let them slip one in front of us by shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Harvick.
Harvick is a two-time race winner this season, so his place in the Chase is secure. But his drive to make his team a championship-caliber team is an honorable one. He knows that 2014 is shaping up to be his best shot (maybe ever) to win a championship, and he’s working all angles to make sure that when the time comes, his Stewart-Haas squad is up to the task.
That photo at the top? Picked that one out on purpose. What do you think Harvick is saying to Johnson?
Gordon Driving with Pain Making Him Even Better?
Back problems that have plagued the four-time champion for several years were so severe this past weekend that he cut short the final practice the day before the Coca-Cola 600. He even had a substitute driver (Regan Smith) waiting in the wings.
According to this interview with ESPN's Marty Smith, Gordon’s back was never an issue on race day.
However, a call for two tires by crew chief Alan Gustafson, reminiscent of a similar pit call some 20 years ago that marked Gordon’s first win at Charlotte, doomed Gordon’s chance at victory in Charlotte on Sunday as the drivers who took four tires were able to move effortlessly past Gordon.
Gordon defended the call, saying after the race that it was gutsy and the right call to make.
During the race winner's post-race press conference, team owner Rick Hendrick was asked how he felt about the 42-year-old Gordon, who, he said, reminded him of someone out of the past.
“I was worried about how he would get in the car,” said Hendrick. “Alan and I've talked and the team's talked about it. It looks like the Jeff Gordon of 20 years ago. He's fired up. He's up there every week.
“I think he's got the entire garage talking about the kind of year he's having right now.”
Gordon will have time this week to rest his back before he has to be back in the car on Friday morning at Dover, a track where he has four wins and 19 top-fives.
Engine Problems for Danica Spoils a Special Weekend
Charlotte was her best Sprint Cup start on a non-restrictor-plate race (fourth).
The former IndyCar driver seems to be getting the hang of this NASCAR thing and especially on all-important 1.5-mile tracks.
Danica Patrick showed good speed throughout every practice session and into qualifying. During the race, she held her own, making passes handily while keeping herself running up with the race leaders.
On Lap 260, Patrick’s Chevrolet engine began to sound off-tune and eventually she parked her Stewart-Haas entry after being rear-ended as the yellow came out on Lap 281. It brought to a close what likely would have been a top-10 (or better) finish.
“We had a good plan for the next yellow, then dropped a cylinder and lost power, then got rear-ended,” said Patrick. “That was our day. We'll just remember the good stuff that happened here at Charlotte and at Kansas last race and build on that for Dover."
Dover, however, is a different kind of beast, with its fast corners and unforgiving high-banked straights. If Patrick does well there, it will signal a real turning point in her NASCAR career.
Special Weekend Is Over, Kurt Busch Looks to the Rest of the Season
Whether you are a Kurt Busch fan or not, his was a remarkable achievement. To even attempt to compete in both races on the same day has forever put him in with rare company, which includes his current boss Stewart.
It would have been a thrill to have seen Busch complete all 1,100 miles, and to be honest, that was never any doubt given his physical condition. Yes, he was exhausted upon arrival in Charlotte, but is there any question that he could have completed the 600 miles in his Cup car?
If there was to be any part of this unique racing day that would fail, one would have thought it would have come on the IndyCar side and not from his regular ride in NASCAR. Credit goes out to Andretti Autosport. It did one amazing job to put together a backup car for Busch that he could climb into without any prior practice and get it up to speed on Carburetion Day without incident.
For his efforts, Busch was awarded the Indianapolis 500 Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award.
Maybe he has acted like a jerk in the past. And if you’re not a fan because of it, then so be it. But he has changed since that huge ego crash of a couple of years ago. Everybody gets a chance to get themselves pointed in the right direction, even Busch.
One thing that is not up for debate is that the man can wheel a race car—apparently just about any race car, as long as it goes over 200 miles per hour.
We all hope you try it again, Kurt. And maybe next time you'll have a car to take you to the checkers in both races.
And the Next Winner Is:
Will it be Kenseth (above)? Or Brian Vickers? Or maybe Ryan Newman? What about Greg Biffle, or rookie Kyle Larson or Austin Dillon.
All six drivers are in the top 15 in driver points and all are winless heading into Dover this weekend. Both Kenseth and Biffle have two wins apiece, and Newman has three on the Monster Mile.
Or will we see another repeat winner? Johnson has seven wins, Kyle Busch two, brother Kurt one and even Dale Earnhardt Jr. has one. Or maybe Harvick. Wait! He is winless at Dover. But having the kind of year that even a place like Dover's all-concrete Monster Mile won’t stand in his way as he marches toward the championship in Homestead.
Roush Fenway's Next Star?
Not even a recorded video message from Mark Martin could make the resurrection of the No. 6 Ford exciting news.
Apparently five years is long enough of an apprenticeship for 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne to spend running a part-time Cup schedule with the legendary Wood Brothers and under the tutelage of veteran crew chief Donnie Wingo.
Bayne’s only Sprint Cup victory came in that 2011 Daytona 500, when he was in the right place at the right time to take the checkered flag first.
But team owner Jack Roush believes in this clean-living young man from Knoxville, Tennessee. Believes in him enough to bring back the No. 6 to Sprint Cup competition.
When asked during the press announcement if bringing Bayne under the Roush Fenway Racing banner in 2015 meant that RFR would be fielding four cars in the Sprint Cup Series, team principle Roush could only say things were “in flux.” Which means it all depended on whether or not Carl Edwards and Biffle are convinced to somehow spend additional time with RFR.
Biffle might. Edwards won’t get fooled again.
Bringing back the legendary No. 6 isn’t going to distract observers of the sport from the fact that RFR is in trouble, can’t field cars comparable to the other Fords in the series and will likely lose Edwards and possibly Biffle to other organizations in 2014.
That could make Ricky Stenhouse Jr. the senior driver at RFR.
Just think about that.
Same Tire Expected at Dover
Goodyear conducted a tire test on Tuesday and Wednesday May 6-7, 2014 at Dover International Speedway. Drivers participating were Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Carl Edwards.
They were joined by Nationwide drivers Ty Dillon and Elliott Sadler as well as two teams from the Camping World Truck Series.
The Sprint Cup teams will run the same combination of left- and right-side tires that has been run at Dover since 2012. It is also the same tire set-up run at Kentucky in 2013.
Dover is unique among NASCAR ovals of one mile or less in length, in that inner liners are required in all four tire positions due to the high speeds and heavy loads placed upon the tires in the track’s sweeping corners.
McMurray on Right Track
The 2014 Sprint All-Star Race-winning chief, Keith Rodden, has apparently found a comfortable setup on the 1.5-mile tracks for his driver Jamie McMurray.
After finishes of 15, 17 and 39 at the first three races held on 1.5-mile tracks (Las Vegas, Texas and Kansas, respectively), McMurray finished both races at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the top five. He was fifth in the Coca-Cola 600.
“Keith (Rodden, crew chief) did a really good job adjusting on the car, and our car was fast enough that even when we went to the back we were able to recover and get back to the top five, which is great,” said McMurray in a post-race interview in Charlotte.
“We've had such good cars all year long and have not been able to capitalize because of tire issues or just some bad luck. I'm excited we won last week. We ran really good again this week and Dover is one of my favorite tracks. I'm looking forward to getting there.”
McMurray will need to help his teammate, as rookie Larson has still to find the right combination to help him go fast on the 1.5-mile tracks. His fifth-place finish in Texas was his best on a 1.5-mile so far this season. He finished 18th in the Coca-Cola 600.
Good news for Larson is: He leads Dillon by 10 points in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings.
Follow me on Twitter: @BobMargolis
*All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.