The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes it second trip of the year to Dover International Speedway, with Matt Kenseth having won the first two races of the postseason, and the overall push for the championship starting to take some shape as the AAA 400 runs on Sunday (2 PM ET, ESPN).
Three drivers are separating themselves from the pack, with Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson both in quick striking distance of Kenseth. Three other drivers are at the back end, with Dale Earnhardt Junior, Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne in a deep, early rut. In between are seven drivers who can easily shuffle positions on a week-to-week basis and that’s where our focus is this week.
The push for Sprint Cup is obviously the most important prize, but there are other goals at stake—career-best finishes and top-five finishes for example. And if you’re Ryan Newman, those two objectives are one in the same.
Newman started racing full-time in 2002 and in each of his first four years he landed in the final Top 10, including a 2003 that saw him win eight races. Newman was never consistent enough to get higher than #6 though, and he subsequently finished outside of the Top 10 for three years running, before slipping in at #9 in 2009, and 10th in 2011. If the odd-numbered year thing keeps working for him that at least points to another Top 10, and he’s right in the mix for his first career Top 5 finish.
It was a crazy ending to the regular season, where Newman was at the center of controversy, as the victim of the dirty tactics employed by Michael Waltrip Racing, before NASCAR stepped in and declared Newman the winner of the final playoff spot a couple days after the last race. Now the driver has the opportunity to take full advantage of the justice given him.
“He’s got a good shot,” said TheSportsNotebook’s resident NASCAR diehard, my brother Bill. “He just can’t pull a Logano,” referring to the bad luck that Logano has had in the early stages of the Chase.
THE MONSTER MILE
Dover International Speedway is known casually as “The Monster Mile”, and more specifically, it’s renowned for its concrete track, which is hard on tires. If the tires wear down, it can disrupt the handling of a car and create crashes, thus making proper race management even more crucial than normal.
When I spoke to Bill, I speculated that the high-stakes nature of this particular race, as a part of the Chase, might cause drivers to take risks and push their tires further than they otherwise might. This would be a factor not at play in the June race at Dover, where there’s still plenty of time left in the regular season. Bill dismissed the possibility, saying the crews are smart enough to know that pushing your luck on bad tires will never work.
A strategy that might be employed though, would be to run on two tires rather than four. “They’ll see if it works early in the race,” Bill said, referring to whether the car would handle well enough on two. “If it does, they’ll do it again late.” Going with two tires cuts the changing time on pit stops in half.
Jimmie Johnson is the usual favorite in this race at 7-2 betting odds. Kenseth, finally getting some respect after his five regular season wins and two straight Chase wins, is next at 9-2, along with Kyle Busch. Kasey Kahne might not be consistent, but he does know how to close, and it’s reflected in his 9-1 price tag. And Newman? He’s a 50-1 shot to win, but the biggest thing for him is consistency and pushing toward that final Top 5 finish.