Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's FedEx 400
Defending Dover winners Matt Kenseth and crew chief Jimmy Fennig. (ASP, Inc.)
The two-week homestretch in Charlotte is now in the books and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the Monster Mile in Dover, Del., for Sunday’s FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks.
Not only is Dover one of the most demanding tracks on the NASCAR schedule, it also kicks off the seven-week summer stretch that takes the series to the newly-repaved tracks of Pocono and Michigan, the road course in Sonoma, night races at Kentucky and Daytona, then to New Hampshire before another break in the action.
Teams will be looking to build momentum towards the Chase for the Sprint Cup during this time. Some will try to maintain their spot in the top 10 in points, while those just on the outside will be looking to claw their way in.
At the same time, for those well outside the top 10, the name of the game is “Win, Win, Win.” The Wild Card aspect of the Chase will play a major role in the coming weeks as drivers and teams look to win their way into a spot in the championship battle.
First, those teams will have to conquer the Monster and survive Sunday's 400 miles around the high-banked concrete oval — which is no simple task … unless you drive with the Roush Fenway brigade.
The Roush cars have been stellar at Dover over the past 10 years, scoring six wins in that time. Current drivers Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth have all been to Victory Lane at Dover and enter the weekend as the organization to beat.
Kenseth, who sits second in points to Biffle, he is the defending race winner, and this week's fantasy favorite. All told, Kenseth has two wins, 12 top 5s and 17 top 10s in 26 Dover starts, giving him the second-best driver rating at the one-mile oval.
Not only does Kenseth have a stellar record at Dover, he describes the demanding track as his favorite on the schedule.
“The track is so fast and challenging, and it’s unique because of the way you drive up out of the turns,” Kenseth says. “The turns sit a bit lower than the straightaways and you can feel it when you’re driving out there.”
Dover is the type of track that suits Kenseth’s driving style, so look for him to surpass Biffle in the points while scoring his second win of the season.
While Biffle has maintained his points lead since the third race of the year, Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are steadily cutting into that lead.
One of the most consistent drivers this season, Biffle has bounced between finishes inside the top 5 and outside the top 10 week-to-week, of late. Following a fifth-place finish at Kansas, Biffle was 18th at Richmond. Then came a fifth at Talladega, followed by a 12th at Darlington, then a fourth in last Sunday's Coca-Cola 600.
While this trend might pass at such a strong track for Biffle, it is definitely worth keeping in the back of your head when setting your lineup.
Edwards has struggled to back up his near-championship run of 2011 through the first 12 races of the 2012 season. The Missouri native has one win at Dover and is coming off a ninth-place finish in Charlotte and is on a run of seven finishes of 11th or better in the last eight races.
What is striking about Edwards’ season, however, is he has led in only two races — one lap at Kansas and 206 at Richmond. In last year's races at Dover, Edwards led a combined 233 circuits, so look for him to produce when it comes time on Sunday.
Given the success of the Roush organization this season (and at Dover), it is very likely we could se a reply of the Sept. 2008 event in which Biffle, Kenseth and Edwards battled lap after lap for the win and swept the top-3 spots.
While the Roush cars may consistently be among the best, they will have to contend with six-time Dover winner Jimmie Johnson. The five-time series champion has the second-best average finish (9.3) at the Monster Mile, the series-best average running position (7.9), as well as the series-best driver rating, fastest laps run, average green flag speed and laps in the top 15. Not too shabby.
To boot, Johnson has been on quite the roll of late. His win at Darlington gave team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career Cup win, his pit crew won the Sprint Pit Crew Challenge during All-Star week, he scored his third All-Star Race victory in Charlotte, and was in contention in the Coca-Cola 600 until a botched pit stop late in the race.
Heading to one of his best tracks on the circuit, Johnson will be looking to tie Bobby Allison and Richard Petty for the all-time winningest drivers at Dover. If his Chad Knaus-led pit crew can keep its composure and execute without mistakes, Johnson will factor.
Five Favorites: Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch
Jeff Gordon (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Who would have ever thought four-time series champion Jeff Gordon would become that dreaded “fourth car” at Hendrick Motorsports? It seems each year, one of Hendrick’s four teams struggle to keep pace despite the resources, equipment and all-around talent.
Now in his 20th season in the Sprint Cup Series, Gordon has become “that” driver within the organization struggling to keep pace. After the first 12 races of the season, Gordon is 22nd in the standings with only one top 5 and three top 10s.
Yet, throughout the season, the No. 24 team has shown up with fast cars and solid outings. The problem for this group has not been bad performances, but bad luck. This weekend at Dover, I expect that luck to turn around.
While Gordon has four Dover wins on his resume, his last top-10 finish there came in 2009. Although the results have not been spectacular, he has only one finish outside the top 20 (a 26th in 2009) in his last 12 Dover starts.
Gordon has remained confident in his team's ability throughout these trying times, finding solace in their fast racecars.
“We are a good team and we’re just having some bad stuff happen,” he said. “And we’re being tested and I hope there is a reason why we’re being tested that’s going to make us stronger because of it; and that we do recover and get out of it and learn from it.”
Gordon is the type of driver that can gain momentum and start contending for wins week-in and week-out, and following a seventh-place finish in Charlotte, the momentum may be starting to build.
Five Undervalued Picks: Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick
Another driver that has been snake-bit this year is Penske Racing's AJ Allmendinger. Despite having solid equipment, problems have cost Allmendinger from scoring the results many expected when he was named Kurt Busch’s replacement in the No. 22 Dodge.
In 2010, he led 143 laps at Dover before finishing a disappointing 10th after a flat tire ruined his day. Last year, Allmendinger had a solid car, started on the outside of the front row, but suffered an engine failure that resulted in a 37th-place finish. In the fall Chase race, he started seventh and finished seventh.
Also keep in mind that Allmendinger was part of the Goodyear tire test held at Dover in April.
“To me, I just show up to the race track and I am excited to be there,” he said. “I just genuinely like the race track and think when you are able to do that you can go there and have a good attitude about it and be pretty fast.”
Five Darkhorse Picks: A.J. Allmendinger, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch
Just like any track on the schedule these days, track position will be paramount during Sunday's 400-miler. Look for pit strategy to come into play as the trend of long green-flag runs should continue. The team that can manage the race from start to finish, stay on top of making changes throughout the afternoon and keep the car full of fuel to the end will be the one celebrating in Victory Lane.