A different monster at Dover: New title, stars, stages add spice to NASCAR race

DOVER — New ingredients promise to make today’s AAA 400 Drive for Autism race at Dover International Speedway a completely different monster than it has been in the past.

NASCAR’s premier racing series has a new edgy title sponsor in Monster Energy, several up-and-coming stars of the future are searching for breakthrough wins and stage racing will take place for the first time on the high banks of Dover’s one-mile concrete oval.

With all of the changes there is one thing that remains constant at Dover — track position will be paramount. Those drivers that have it will have a big advantage, while those who don’t will flounder.

It’s Kyle Busch who will have an uncluttered view through his windshield when the green flag waves on today’s race at around 1:15 p.m. after he won the pole position on Friday. Martin Truex Jr. will start alongside him on the front row.

“To sit on the pole (at Dover) means a little bit for us — it gives us a really good pit selection for (today) and, more importantly, just gives us the track position right off the bat,” Busch said. “We know the 78 car (Truex Jr.) is going to be fast — they always are — and one of the guys we’re going to have to race against.

Kyle Busch driver of the #18 Pedigree Toyota enters his car for practice as NASCAR came to Dover International Speedway on Saturday June 3rd as the Monster Energy Series Cup drivers practiced for the 48th Annual AAA Drive For Autism Race to be held on Sunday June 4th.
(Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder)

“There’s going to be many others that are starting farther back that we’ll be racing against, too.”

A total of 73 of the 94 (77.7 percent) Cup races at Dover have been won from a top-10 starting position with 13 winners starting from the pole position (13.8 percent).

Jimmie Johnson is the most recent pole-sitter to win at Dover, which he did in 2009 and ’10.

Johnson, who has a record 10 victories at the Monster Mile, also holds the all-time record for laps led at the race track with 3,093 laps.

His reasoning for his success at Dover is simple — it just fits his driving style.

Kyle Busch driver of the #18 takes a cellphone photo as NASCAR came to Dover International Speedway on Saturday June 3rd as the Monster Energy Series Cup drivers practiced for the 48th Annual AAA Drive For Autism Race to be held on Sunday June 4th.
(Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder)

“This is a track that fits (No. 48 team crew chief) Chad (Knaus)’s style and mine,” said Johnson, who will start 14th today. “I just think that the challenges this track throws at a team just fits us really well.”

The most obvious new challenge in today’s AAA 400 will be the race format. The 400-lap race distance will be broken down into three different stages for the first time.

Martin Truex driver of the #78 signs autographs for eager fans as NASCAR came to Dover International Speedway on Saturday June 3rd as the Monster Energy Series Cup drivers practiced for the 48th Annual AAA Drive For Autism Race to be held on Sunday June 4th.
(Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder)

The first two stages will consist of 120 laps apiece, while the race to the checkered flag will be 160 laps long. Caution flags will wave following the first two segments, allowing drivers a chance to pit and resetting the field.

Matt Kenseth said the new format could change the dynamic of racing at the track.

“Stage racing changes a lot because Dover used to be a race where you used to get some long green-flag runs where a lot of people would fall a lap down and there weren’t a lot of cars on the lead lap,” said Kenseth, defending winner of the AAA 400.

“Being able to stay on that lead lap was always really important and then being able to work your strategy on those last couple of stops. But now with the stage cautions, there will be more cars on the lead lap.”

That could lead to more calamities considering the Monster Mile’s penchant for chewing up sheet metal in the form of race cars involved in crashes.

#4 driver Kevin Harvick gets buttoned up for practice as NASCAR came to Dover International Speedway on Saturday June 3rd as the Monster Energy Series Cup drivers practiced for the 48th Annual AAA Drive For Autism Race to be held on Sunday June 4th.
(Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder)

“For me, the thing I love about Dover is just the fact it’s hammer down and you’re up on top of the wheel for 400 laps,” Kevin Harvick said. “It’s violent. Everything about Dover is violent. It’s fast.

“You can just be aggressive with the car and you have to get in there and wrestle that thing all day because it’s bumpy, slings you up out of the corners, dumps you down in the corners, and there’s just a lot going on.”

Bonus points will be awarded to the top 10 finishers at the end of each stage throughout the race, adding more incentive for drivers to race harder throughout the day.

The final stage of the race will be concluded just like races have traditionally been. Race points and purses will be paid out based on the final stage, and 40 points will be awarded to the race winner.

Dover can be a tricky problem for a driver and team to solve. · Among the nine active Dover Cup winners, Harvick (29 starts), Kurt Busch (22) and Kenseth (14) made 10 or more attempts before their first win.

Kyle Larson just might be able to join that list of Dover winners at the end of the day.

After all, he leads all active drivers in the Monster Energy Series drivers in average finishing position at Dover with a 9.333 average finish and came in second place in the spring race last year.

“Dover has always been a track I’ve enjoy racing, so I’m looking forward to it,” Larson said. “The first Dover race (last year) was kind of where we started running better, so hopefully it’s a good track to pick our momentum back up.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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