NASCAR at Dover: The Big Three — Busch, Harvick, Truex to tackle Monster Mile next week

Kevin Harvick cools off with a bottled water after his spring Dover victory. (Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder)

DOVER — Together, NASCAR drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. have earned the moniker of “The Big Three” that has followed them for much of the 2018 Monster Energy Cup Series season.

Not since the 1970s have motorsports fans witnessed such dominance by a group of drivers over the course of the season, when names such as Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison ruled the high banks.

Don’t expect much to change for this year’s “Big Three” when NASCAR returns to Dover International Speedway for its tripleheader of racing action next weekend. The weekend culminates with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race on Sunday, Oct. 7.

After all, Busch has driven his way to three wins on the high banks of Dover’s one-mile, concrete oval, while Harvick has driven to victory lane twice — including the spring race at Dover — and defending Monster Energy Series champion Truex has earned a pair of victories at the Monster Mile.

Kyle Busch gets ready for the final Monster Cup practice for the spring race at Dover International Speedway. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Consider that four of the last six Cup Series races at Dover have been won by a member of “The Big Three” and it’s easy to see who the favorites to bet on will be should a race fan decide to take advantage of the new sports betting option at Dover Downs Casino.

But Busch said it’s far from a given that one of “The Big Three” drivers will be hoisting the Monster Energy Cup Series championship trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway following the season-finale on Nov. 18.

“You’ve got to make Homestead,” said Busch. “All three of us have to make Homestead. That’s what it comes down to right now. If we all make Homestead, it comes down to that race, it’s all about just beating them, beating those guys, outracing them.

“There’s just so many different factors. It’s way too early right now to kind of talk about that. I think we’ve got a great shot of racing Harvick, Truex, and I’m sure some of these other guys … I’m sure one of them is going to have something to say about it, too.”

Harvick said that his team can’t help but feel pressure to excel when going up against drivers like Busch and Truex week-in and week-out.

“When you have guys like (Busch) and (Truex) and all the cars that are in the garage that want to win races, they’re going to continuously push, so you can’t sit on your hands and you have to continue to progress,” Harvick said. “Well, the confidence is high, and right now you just don’t want to screw it up.

Martin Truex Jr. takes a break at the Dover spring race weekend. (Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder)

“I think the biggest thing that it does is it actually makes you work harder. You want to cover all the details because you’re fairly certain that, when the car rolls out of the hauler, that it’s going to be fast, and if it’s not, you have the tools and the people to be able to figure it out and fix it.”

Former crew chief Steve Letarte and former driver Jeff Burton, now both TV analysts for NBC Sports, have taken note of how the 2018 season has been unfolding at the forefront for Busch, Harvick and Truex.

“It is like a heavyweight battle,” Letarte said. “Whatever one can do, the other can do better. They continue to up the ante week-in and week-out.”

Said Burton, “These three are bringing each other to a higher and higher level almost every single week.”

The pressure will be up this weekend at Dover, as the Monster Energy Cup Series race on Sunday will mark the fourth race of the 10-race postseason schedule. It’s also the first race in the Round of 12 for the championship-seeking drivers.

Not only will it be the members of “The Big Three” gunning to capture a Monster Trophy, there will still be around 37 other drivers hoping to outrun them.

Brad Keselowski, who recently won three-consecutive Cup races himself, said he tries not to think about the dominance that has been displayed by Busch, Harvick and Truex for much of the season.

His focus, he said, has been on his race team — and will continue to be.

“I go to each weekend as a reset point, thinking and feeling as though this could be the weekend where we have the speed to win that way or execute that way,” said Keselowski, the 2012 Cup Series champion. “When you start to get through the weekend, you have to get the most out of what you have.

“We’ve had some races where I feel like we’ve been equal to or better than (The Big Three) where we haven’t put it all together. So that’s kind of on us to get a result.”

Keselowski, a former winner at Dover, joins other drivers such as 11-time Dover winner Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Larson, Clint Bowyer, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney as drivers who might have the best chance to unseat “The Big Three” when the checkered flag waves on Sunday at the Monster Mile.

Flashback to more dominant days

NASCAR has prided itself in producing parity-filled, wide-open competition over the past several seasons, despite the championship-driven dominance of Johnson.

However, as drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have stepped away in recent seasons, it has been Busch, Harvick and Truex who have taken the sport over by storm.

Despite NASCAR starting this season trumpeting the emergence of all its young drivers seemingly ready to explode onto the scene, it has turned out to be race-proven veterans Busch, Harvick and Truex who combined to capture 15 of the first 20 races this season.

NASCAR fans have not seen such dominance among a trio since the days of gas-guzzling cars, polyester suits, the original “Star Wars” movie and disco in the 1970s.

History shows the win totals of Harvick (six), Busch (five) and Truex (four) through the first 20 races this season match the totals of NASCAR Hall of Famers Allison (six), Petty (five) and Pearson (four) through 20 races in the 1972 season.

During that season, considered to be the first of NASCAR’s “modern era,” Petty went on to win the fourth of his seven championships by recording eight victories and 25 finishes among the top-five.

Dominance by three drivers was displayed again in 1977 and ’78, with Yarborough rising to the top each season while capturing a then unprecedented three-consecutive Cup Series titles.

Yarborough (seven), Petty (five) and Waltrip (four) won 16 of the opening 20 races of the 1977 season and, a year later, Yarborough (five), Waltrip (five) and Pearson (four) dominated the field through the first 20 races.

Kyle Petty, son of legendary Richard, noted during an NBC Sports telecast at Chicagoland in July that the 2018 season is a different time for NASCAR.

“I think we go back to Pearson and Petty pushing each other, to (Dale) Earnhardt (Sr.) and Gordon pushing each other,” he said. “We are in a unique place in this sport right now.”

Triple threat heading to the Monster

Any one member of this season’s “Big Three” could wind up celebrating in victory lane at the finish of Sunday’s race at Dover.

Each one of the drivers brings his own special thing to the table: Busch is brash and cocky and loved or hated, while a more mellow Harvick is enjoying life at the back end of his career and Truex has enjoyed a racing resurgence at Furniture Row Racing, winning the championship and dominating the sport in 2017.

Harvick, a 42-year-old driver for Stewart-Haas Racing, had racked up a career-best and season-high seven triumphs heading into September’s Labor Day weekend Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, the 25th event of the season.

Busch, 33, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, earned six victories in the first 25 races while Truex, 38, had piled up four wins in the first 25 races.

All the “Big Three” have tasted success — and champagne — at Dover.

Harvick outdueled his SHR teammate Bowyer for the victory at Dover in May.

“It was just one of those weekends where the car was spot-on from the time we got here, and the guys are just doing a great job,” Harvick said, after winning at Dover in the spring.

“Everybody is just so detail-oriented right now, and I feel like we’re playoff racing on a weekly basis, and if you’re going to win a bunch of races, that’s what you have to do.”

Harvick has finished among the top-10 16 times in 35 career starts at Dover, with an average finish of 14.5.

Meanwhile, Busch broke his driveshaft in the spring race at Dover and was relegated to a 35th-place finish. He has 16 top-10s in 27 starts at the Monster Mile, with an average finish of 15.0.

Busch said a positive attitude means a lot when racing at Dover.

“It will scare you the first time you race there, said Busch, whose last win at the Monster Mile came in the 2017 spring race. “You carry so much speed at that racetrack and, for it to be a mile in length and for it to be concrete — concrete surfaces that we race on, anyway — are a little bit slick.

“It’s definitely a roller-coaster ride and you need to treat it like it’s fun and not to be scared of the place, I think, because you can get so much out of that place. There are two ways about it — you can probably be really, really good there, or really, really bad there.”

As for Truex, he seems to be somewhat under the radar of Harvick and Busch. He calls Dover his “home track” and finished fourth at the Monster Mile in May.

He has 14 top-10 finishes in 25 career starts at Dover, with an average finish of 12.9. His last win at the track came in the fall of 2016.

“Dover is a beast,” Truex said. “It will eat you up if you’re not on your game and not in attack mode all the time. It really tests your skills — and every part of your skill set is used there.”

Truex, who claimed his first career Cup win at Dover (June 4, 2007) welcomes the difficulties of the Monster Mile and says he has a comfort zone with the all-concrete, high-banked oval.

“I just like the racetrack a lot,” he said. “The first time I went there I fell in love with the place. I enjoy the challenge of it – it is so different than anywhere else we go.”

“I feel if you like it you have an advantage. It’s been good to me over the years and I enjoy going there. The banking, the concrete, the surface and the way you land in the corners there — it’s just crazy.”

It’s kind of like a Monster Energy Cup Series season that has been dominated by three different drivers and their race teams.

Sunday’s race at Dover will show whether that trend resurfaces and moves forward or if a new face will emerge and take charge of this year’s championship battle.

Only time — and trophies — will tell.

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