NASCAR at Dover notebook: There’s no place like home for Truex Jr. at the Monster Mile

Pole Winner for Sundays Apache Warrior 400 Martin Truex Jr. during practice in the garage, Saturday at Dover International Speedway.
Special to the Delaware State News / Chuck Snyder

DOVER — There’s just something about Dover International Speedway, which he considers to be his “home track,” that brings out the best in Martin Truex Jr.

He grew up watching his father race in old Busch North Series races at Dover’s high-banked, one-mile oval, wishing that one day he would be on the other side of the grandstands.

Truex has certainly switched places at the race track as he has transitioned over the years from interested fan to one of the drivers to watch every time the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series visits the “Monster Mile.”

He recorded his first career Cup Series victory at Dover in the 2007 spring race and he is the defending champion of today’s Apache Warrior 400, where he will start from the pole position at 2 p.m.

Truex, from nearby Mayetta, New Jersey, said he has always enjoyed the unique challenge that Dover’s racetrack represents.

“Dover might be challenging, but I love everything about the track,” said Truex, who finished third in the spring Dover race after winning the first two stages. “I feel we’ll have another fast car that will be competitive (today). There are playoff points up for grabs and we want to get as many as we can.”

Truex isn’t facing any pressure, except what he puts on himself, after ensuring he would advance to the second round of NASCAR’s playoffs by winning the first race of the Round of 16 at Chicagoland Speedway.

The bottom four of the 16 drivers involved in the playoffs will be eliminated from title contention when the checkered flag waves today.

Truex’s career record at Dover includes: 23 starts, two wins, three top fives, 12 top 10s, two poles and 694 laps led. His average start at Dover is 12.1 and average finish is 13.7.

Cole Custer places his hand on his heart during the National Anthem before the start of the Use Your Melon. Drive Sober 200 at Dover International Speedway on Saturday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

“Dover is one my favorite tracks, but at the same time it’s a place where things can happen quickly and knock you out of the race,” he said.

Truex will be starting from the No. 1 position this afternoon. He hopes being out front will keep him away from any potential calamities throughout the day.

He promises to be a force, considering he leads the circuit this season in wins (5), top 10s (19), stage wins (19), playoff points (59), average finish (10.5), average running position (7.7), fastest laps (1,169, 17.3 percent), laps led (2,068, 25.4 percent) and driver rating (112.4).

“Though we had strong finishes the past two weekends, it sure didn’t come easy,” Truex said. “We had a speeding penalty in Chicago and got collected in a multicar accident in New Hampshire.

“Some might have thought we were doomed in each race, but this team has a special kind of fight and it sure paid off with our finishes.”

Elliott flexes muscle

Chase Elliott says he tries to pick his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson’s brain whenever he can to find out the secrets to conquering Dover International Speedway.

Elliott, the son of former NASCAR champion Bill Elliott, must have learned a little bit on Saturday.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. signs autographs for fans on Saturday at Dover International Speedway.
Special to the Delaware State News / Chuck Snyder

Elliott was the quickest driver in the final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice, topping the Saturday afternoon speed charts with a 157.363-mph lap at the “Monster Mile.”

Johnson was no slouch himself. He was second-quickest at 156.904 mph, just behind Elliott in the 55-minute final practice session before today’s Apache Warrior 400 Monster Energy Series race.

“I’ve been trying to talk to (Johnson) every time I’ve ever been (at Dover),” said Elliott, who will start 12th in today’s race. “I still haven’t figured it out, but yes, I would say he is the best there, no doubt.

“I would love to know what makes him so good at that track. I feel like I have learned some things and have gotten better there over the past few races. I think we are gaining on it. We are not to (Johnson’s) level by any means, but I think we are gaining on it.”

Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch completed the top five in the final practice session as playoff-eligible drivers swept the top nine spots on the speed chart.

Truex will start from the pole today but only posted the 16th-fastest lap in final practice.

Penalties galore

A total of 16 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams suffered practice penalties at Dover on Saturday due to issues ranging from being late to qualifying tech inspection, failing pre-qualifying and/or pre-race technical inspection at New Hampshire last week or this week at Dover.

The most severe penalty was issued to Michael McDowell,, who was forced to sit out the entire 55-minute final practice session on Saturday after failing pre-qualifying inspection four times on Friday.

McDowell entered Dover with a bright outlook, but was forced to sit on pit road strapped into his car with his helmet on during the entire final practice.

Crew member of the #78 Furniture Row car of Martin Truex, adjusts the track bar on Saturday at Dover International Speedway.
Special to the Delaware State News / Chuck Snyder

“Dover was really good to us the last time we were there,” said McDowell. “We ended up with a top-20 finish, but we were actually running very well. We ended up having a loose wheel, which messed us up.

“We have something to build on, and it’s a lot easier when you ran well there last time.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., set for his final race at Dover, and playoff contender Matt Kenseth were held from 30 minutes of final practice for failing pre-race inspection and pre-qualifying inspection twice each at both New Hampshire last week and Dover on Friday.

Clint Bowyer and Kyle Larson were also forced to sit for 30 minutes of final practice after both failed pre-qualifying technical inspection three times Friday.

Another eight drivers missed 15 minutes of final practice time Saturday afternoon for a variety of issues, including: Kasey Kahne, Ross Chastain, Brett Moffitt, Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman, Matt DiBenedetto, Erik Jones and today’s pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr.

Five drivers, none of whom are competing in the playoffs, served 15-minute practice holds during the first practice for being late to qualifying inspection Friday, including: Chastain, Moffitt, Landon Cassill, BJ McLeod and Reed Sorenson.

Looking for a good day

It’s possible that Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne, 17 and 21 points below the cutoff line, respectively, for advancement to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs Round of 12, can still advance on points.

However, they likely need a win at Dover to advance in the postseason.

Busch won at Dover in 2011, but has only one top-10 finish at the “Monster Mile” since then.

Kahne has never won at Dover, but has three top fives and eight top 10s in 27 starts there. He has finished sixth or better in three of his last five races at the one-mile track.

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

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