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Complete Preview and Prediction for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series FedEx 400

Bob MargolisContributor IIMay 28, 2014

Complete Preview and Prediction for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series FedEx 400

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    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    Short-track racing on a big track.

    Think of Bristol Motor Speedway on steroids.

    Dover International Speedways one mile offers a unique blend of a slick, all-concrete racing surface and fast, high-banked corners.

    “I enjoy racing at Dover because of the high speeds and the high-banked corners and the high-banked straightaways,” said Jeff Gordon. “You are constantly on the edge and you can find yourself in trouble quickly. The groove widens out and we can run low, middle or high. But this place is tricky because the balance of the car can be different from one end of the track to the other.”

    This place gives even a four-time champion and four-time Dover race winner something to think about.

    Two-time Dover winner Matt Kenseth brings a mini winless streak with him this weekend. But he may not be winless at the end of the weekend. Ask him what his favorite track is.

    “Whenever somebody asks me my favorite track, I always tell them Dover,” said Kenseth in a pre-race interview. You need everything there. You have to be stable going into the corner, but you always have to turn really good there. It’s hard to find that exact balance, but it’s a fun track because it challenges you every lap whether you’re racing someone or not.”

    Eight-time Dover winner Jimmie Johnson started his own little win streak last weekend in Charlotte, and he should be on anyone’s short list of potential winners for Sunday’s FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks.

    The weather, which is often an issue for the spring race at Dover, looks to be mid-70s perfect all weekend long. Sunday’s Cup race tops off a rare weekend tripleheader, as NASCAR will stage a Camping World Truck Series race on Friday and a Nationwide Series race on Saturday.

    Over the past few weeks, weve seen a new Danica Patrick, one who is competitive on the 1.5-mile tracks. It will be of great interest to see how she fares on the tricky and fast Dover surface.

    Every driver professes to love Dover, yet few have really mastered its unique blend of fast and slick.

    Will Sundays winner be among the 10 who have already won this season, or will we see a new face in Victory Lane?

By the Numbers: Dover International Speedway

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks

    • The Place: Dover International Speedway
    • The Date: Sunday, June 1
    • The Time: 1 p.m. ET
    • TV: Fox (final race of the season), 12:30 p.m. ET
    • Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN), SiriusXM Ch. 90
    • Distance: 400 miles (400 laps) 
    • Defending Race Winner: Tony Stewart
    • Defending Pole Winner: Denny Hamlin
    • Race Record: Mark Martin, 132.719 mph (09/21/1997)
    • Qualifying Record: Dale Earnhardt Jr., 161.849 mph (09/29/2013)
    • Races Won from the Pole: 13
    • Last Race Won from the Pole: Jimmie Johnson (09/26/2010)
    • Youngest Winner: Kyle Busch (06/01/2008—23 years, zero months, 30 days)
    • Oldest Winner: Harry Gant (05/31/1992—52 years, four months, 21 days)
    • All-Time Winner: Jimmie Johnson (eight)

    Dover weather

Key Storylines

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Johnson Adds His Name to the List

    Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson added his name to the list of 10 winners in the Sprint Cup Series in 2014 last weekend in Charlotte. Afterward, the likable driver joked with the media, telling them they’d have nothing to write about anymore now that Johnson has ended what turned out to be a short winless streak.

    Most observers knew it was only a matter of time for the dynamic duo of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus to put a weekend together that would end with both men smiling in Victory Lane.

    It doesn’t bode well for the competition that Dover is one of Johnson’s best tracks with eight wins on the one-mile oval.

     

    Is Danica Patrick for Real?

    The past three weekends have been very good for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver. Apparently, she and crew chief Tony Gibson Jr. are on the same page in regard to setups on the critical 1.5-mile tracks. And while they are arguably the most important, 1.5-mile tracks can also be the most difficult.

    Each one bears its own personality and Patrick seems to have conquered two of the more difficult versions on the schedule—Kansas and Charlotte.

    Dover is a beast of a different kind, and Patrick’s adaptation to the high-speed corners at Charlotte should serve her well on the fast, all-concrete track. With that being said, how to handle the changing grip on the Dover track’s surface is best done by a veteran driver and could pose serious problems for Patrick, especially coming off the corners.

     

    What Does Bristol Tell Us?

    Although it was months ago, the results from the Bristol Cup race could offer a few clues as to who will do well at Dover.

    Carl Edwards was a surprise winner at Bristol. He has only one win at Dover but eight top fives. The Roush Fenway cars have always been good at Dover, so that puts the No. 17 driven by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in play. Stenhouse finished second at Bristol. His RFR teammate Greg Biffle was 12th.

    Tony Stewart, the defending Dover race winner, just had his first laps back behind the wheel of a sprint car. That’s likely to be the best medicine ever for Smoke. He’s been trying to find his groove since Daytona, and coming to Dover, where he’s got three wins, could be where he finds it. Stewart, by the way, was fourth at Bristol in March.

    Another driver looking to put his train back on the tracks is Denny Hamlin. Despite scoring a win in the restrictor plate race at Talladega, Hamlin’s 2014 season has been unimpressive. He finished sixth at Bristol, and although winless at Dover, he is always fast with two poles on the one-mile oval.

     

    Time for Almirola and Ambrose to Make a Statement

    Both Richard Petty Motorsports drivers have been competitive this season. Marcos Ambrose is a superstar during qualifying. Then on race day, it’s like there’s someone else behind the wheel. Ambrose is a “gimme” on a road course. But the question has to be asked: Does he have what it takes to be among those 10 to 12 drivers every week whom you expect to be in Victory Lane?

    He hasn’t shown us yet.

    Aric Almirola, on the other hand, needs to improve an upside-down starting position-vs.-finishing position ratio (14th vs. 18th). The 30-year-old is in his third year in Cup full time (seventh year overall), and now is the time for him to step up his game and be the leader at RPM. He’s got the talent, and the Fords coming out of RPM appear to have the speed to get the job done.

    Dover is the kind of place where either one (or both) of these drivers can make a big change to their season. Both are capable of winning there.

Drivers to Watch

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    Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images

    Kevin Harvick

    The 38-year-old Harvick may have been the only person (besides his wife, DeLana) who knew exactly how this season would play out when he signed the deal to race for his good friend, Tony Stewart: Hendrick motors, Rodney Childers on the pit box and cars built for a team owner who is the pickiest of the picky drivers.

    This season, “Happy” Harvick has made it painfully apparent that he too had been handicapped for much of his career in less-than-adequate equipment. There, it’s been said!

     

    Jeff Gordon

    He’s said that he feels like he’s “25 again,” per Autosport.com (h/t Racer.com). The four-time Cup champion’s 2014 season has been like a fountain of youth for this veteran driver. He’s been aggressive (in a good way) and pumped up, even when he’s finished second (which he’s done twice).

    Dover is a track where Gordon can qualify well, run up front for much of the afternoon and likely be part of a two- or three-car battle for the checkered flag.

     

    Tony Stewart

    The defending Dover race winner could be part of a dream weekend for Stewart-Haas Racing, with himself, Harvick and Kurt Busch all having good finishes.

    As mentioned earlier, Stewart ran laps behind the wheel of a sprint car earlier this week. That’s not just a big dose of good medicine for the veteran driver and team owner, it’s a sign that his leg is stronger, and he’s likely to be more comfortable for three hours inside of the No. 14 Chevrolet.

     

    Brad Keselowski

    After coming out of the box swinging this season, the Penske driver has been a bit off pace lately. He’s not scored a top five since Richmond, and last week’s 10th-place finish was his best result (excluding the fourth at Richmond) since his win in Las Vegas in Week 3 of the 2014 season.

    This team had been stymied by the new rules package this season, and this writer has seen the frustration when Keselowski is interviewed on television. But last week at Charlotte, this team showed it’s ready to bounce back, and Dover, where Keselowski has one win, is its kind of race track.

     

    Jimmie Johnson

    In saving the best for last, Johnson’s No. 48 Lowes team not only took the monkey off its shoulders with a win last weekend at Charlotte, but also sent it packing (with a bunch of bananas) until next season.

    All kidding aside, this team is likely to go on a tear over the next several races (Dover, Pocono, Michigan). Johnson is the winningest driver at Dover, and his record at both Pocono (three wins) and Michigan (four top-five finishes) could make Mr. Six-Time a multiple race winner by the time the series gets to the road course in Sonoma next month.

    And yes, the media will still have something to write about now that Johnson has finally won a race.

Quick Picks

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Kyle Busch

    If only this driver ran as well on Sunday as he does on Saturday. Maybe he can be hypnotized into thinking his Cup car is his Nationwide ride.

    He was fourth at Dover last year, and he’s got two wins and nine top fives. Kyle Busch always seems to fade in the closing laps unless he’s got a really good race car. Maybe Dave Rogers will give him one this weekend.

     

    Greg Biffle

    This two-time Dover winner has been rumored to be racing for another team in 2015, as reported by Front Stretch's Amy Henderson. What better place is there than Dover to show a perspective new employer how you can get it done?

     

    Ryan Newman

    Are the cars coming out of Richard Childress Racing holding back this three-time Dover winner this season? Is there any other reason why Newman has not been in Victory Lane already in 2014? Dover could be the place to change all that. The Hoosier has four pole starts there, too.

     

    Matt Kenseth

    He says that Dover is his favorite track, although he doesn’t always do well there. Kenseth has two wins at Dover but remains winless in 2014. Joe Gibbs Racing cars are showing improvement, but are they good enough to take Kenseth to Victory Lane this weekend?

     

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Junior always runs well at Dover, but his finishes never show it. He has only one win at Dover but also a pole start and six top-five finishes. He’s having a career year, and if this team is fast off the truck (it usually is), watch out. It could be a Junior kind of weekend.

Dark Horse: Brian Vickers

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    Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    Brian Vickers

    Arguably the better driver at Michael Waltrip Racing, Vickers has made the very best of his second chance at Cup racing.

    It’s a more mature, yet passionate Vickers who sits behind the wheel of the No. 55 Aaron’s Dream Machine. Two top fives in the past three races shows that this Billy Scott-led team is obviously pointed in the right direction.

    “I enjoy Dover a lot, it’s a great race track. It’s really fun, it’s like a high speed Bristol—one-mile, high-banked and just a lot of fun. It’s so fast though, everything happens fast there. The way the cars react, the way the speeds are—even though we go faster on mile-and-a-half tracks, it just seems to happen faster there for some reason. It’s always a lot of fun and it’s a challenge. I think we will have a good car there,” said Vickers.

    Does that sound to you like someone who is enjoying his gig and is likely to flourish while doing it? If Vickers doesn’t win this weekend in Dover, odds are he will before the start of the Chase.

Historical Perspective: Dover International Speedway

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    Ricky Rudd's winning 1997 Ford
    Ricky Rudd's winning 1997 FordCraig Jones/Getty Images

    The official opening of Dover International Speedway, then called Dover Downs International Speedway, was in 1969.

    The first NASCAR Sprint Cup race was held on July 6, 1969—won by Richard Petty.

    The first two races at Dover were 300 miles. The race length was changed to 500 miles in 1971.

    The track surface was changed to concrete in 1995.

    The race length was changed to 400 miles beginning with the second race in 1997.

    The track name was changed to Dover International Speedway in 2002.

    One active NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver has posted his first career win at Dover International Speedway: Martin Truex Jr. (06/04/07).

    Jimmie Johnson leads all active drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in laps led at Dover with 2,704 in 24 starts.

Rookie Report

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    Rookie Kyle Larson
    Rookie Kyle LarsonRainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images

    Kyle Larson (above) continues to outperform and out-impress his closest rival in the Rookie of the Year competition, Austin Dillon.

    Larson’s partnership with crew chief Chris Heroy is making team owner Chip Ganassi look like a genius. Two top fives and five top 10s have shown that the young Californian is comfortable in his surroundings as a Sprint Cup driver, and he is taking advantage of his opportunity. Its hard to believe that this is the same car that Juan Pablo Montoya drove.

    Dillon’s pairing with Gil Martin hasn’t shown the kind of results so far that Larson has accomplished, yet Dillon’s progress this season has been steady. There’s no attempt to make him a superstar either on the track or in the media, and the whole grandson-of-a-legend bit has been thankfully downplayed.

    Larson (13th) and Dillon (15th) stand head and shoulders above the rest of the rookie class of 2014. Justin Allgaier (29th), Michael Annett (30th) and Cole Whitt (31st) have been finishing races but not making the kind of impression that both Larson and Dillon have made. Much of this is due to their driving for underfunded or start-up teams.

    Dover is not kind to rookie drivers. This could be a difficult weekend for the entire class of 2014.

Qualifying Report: FedEx 400 Benefitting Autism Speaks

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Brad Keselowski won the pole for the 45th Annual FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks with a new track record lap of 21.892 seconds, 164.444 mph.

    It was the second pole of the season for Keselowski and the third for Team Penske (Phoenix, Las Vegas). It was Keselowski’s first pole in nine races at Dover International Speedway.

    Kyle Busch starts second with a lap of 21.980 seconds, 163.785 mph.

    Keselowski’s teammate Joey Logano starts third. Jimmie Johnson starts fourth. Defending race winner Tony Stewart starts 20th.

    Kyle Larson was the fastest qualifying rookie. He’ll start fifth.

    Only 43 cars made qualifying attempts. No one went home.

And the Winner Is...

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Jimmie Johnson

    The bearded one is on a roll.

    Dover couldn’t have come at a more ideal time. It’s like the stars in the sky have all lined up.

    Johnson’s record at Dover can be described with only word: phenomenal!

    Eight wins, three poles, 12 top fives, 17 top 10s—and in just 24 races. This man and this entire Chad Knaus-led team have got this place figured out.

    It’s easy to pick a winner when the choice is this obvious.

     

    *All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.

    Follow me on Twitter: @BobMargolis.

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