Johnson, Stewart Seeking Respective Rebounds The road doesn't smooth out this week for reigning and four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) and two-time series champion Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office...
Johnson, Stewart Seeking Respective Rebounds
The road doesn't smooth out this week for reigning and four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) and two-time series champion Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet).
Both endured rough rides this past Saturday night at venerable Darlington Raceway, non-affectionately known as "The Lady in Black." Now comes "The Monster Mile" -- Dover International Speedway.
Expect another teeth-rattler.
In the spring of 2009, Johnson and Stewart finished first and second, respectively, at Dover. They arrive for Sunday's Autism Speaks 400 needing a repeat, each for different reasons. Johnson, who finished 38h at Darlington after a hard collision with AJ Allmendinger (No. 43 Richard Petty Hall of Fame Ford), hopes to halt the Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Freight Toyota) Express. Stewart, who finished 23rd and a lap down at Darlington, hopes for a good finish.
Certainly there is optimism.
Johnson leads all active drivers with five Dover wins (tied with legend David Pearson for third place on Dover's all-time wins list) and he swept both Dover events in 2009, seemingly habitual; he also swept Dover in 2002, his rookie season. Stewart, with two Dover victories, also performs well there.
Both drivers, though, could use a boost.
After surprisingly stellar runs in early 2009 -- his first season as driver-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing -- Stewart is experiencing a more mediocre 2010. Dismissing sophomore- slump references, the evidence lies in numbers: After 11 races, he's 18th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings, yet only 59 points behind 12th, the cut-off position for Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup eligibility.
Stewart only has three top 10s and one top five as the series heads to Dover, much different than 2009, when he was second in the standings after 11 races, with five top fives and eight top 10s, only 29 points behind then-leader Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet). This year, Stewart's risen as high as fifth, after race No. 5 at Bristol Motor Speedway. Six consecutive weeks of tough finishes -- 26th at Martinsville, 23rd at Phoenix, 32nd at Texas, 16th at Talladega and 23rd at Richmond and Darlington -- have taken their points toll.
Johnson has fared much better in 2010, winning three of the first five races. But an accident-marred 31st three weeks ago at Talladega, a 10th at Richmond and last Saturday's 38th at Darlington have staunched momentum.
He remains second in the standings for a second consecutive week, although the Darlington finish cost him; he trailed leader Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet) by 10 points entering Darlington and now trails Harvick by 110 heading to Dover.
A track where he has five victories seems made to order, to end this perceived slump. "Dover is a fairly consistent race track, with the concrete surface ... but then we've raced on one tire in the spring and a different tire in the fall, so it kind of mixes it back up," Johnson said.
"I don't think there is a clear-cut answer [for my success there]. Maybe confidence has something to do with it; when you win the spring race, you have a good starting point with your setup to come back in the fall and you're very confident about what you're feeling and the direction the car is going."
Hamlin Hurting? Coulda Fooled Us Competition Corner
What bum left knee?
Not that Denny Hamlin's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series peers pine for a damaged anterior cruciate ligament, but since arthroscopic surgery six weeks ago, the 29-year-old Virginian has revved up rather than slowed down.
Last Saturday's victory at "The Track Too Tough Too Tame" -- Darlington Raceway -- serves as both obvious and unspoken salvo. The old 1.366-mile superspeedway serves as a measuring stick in most drivers' eyes, and Hamlin mastered it not once, but twice, becoming the first in 17 years to win both NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and NASCAR Nationwide Series events on the same weekend at Darlington.
In last Friday's NASCAR Nationwide Series event, he did it from the pole, leading 111 of 147 laps. In Saturday's NASCAR Sprint Cup event, he led the final 20 laps after a flawless final pit stop, boosting himself one spot in the standings, to sixth.
Heading into Sunday's Autism Speaks 400 presented by Hershey's Milk and Milkshakes, Hamlin sits 164 points behind leader Kevin Harvick. He's also planted himself firmly in Jimmie Johnson's path.
Johnson, the reigning and four-time series champion who won three of the first five races, appears to have cooled. Hamlin, meanwhile, has won three of the last six events, including his first (at Martinsville Speedway) two days before his surgery. Eighteen days after surgery, he stood in Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway.
Fulfilling pre-season prognostications as a championship contender now seems reality. Hamlin and Johnson lead all drivers with three wins each, which translates into 30 Chase bonus points (Chase drivers are seeded according to the number of wins they accrue in the season's first 26 races; each victory is worth 10 points).
"I didn't want to give up a bunch of bonus points to Jimmie if we did make the Chase -- him having 80 bonus points," Hamlin said of his Darlington victory. "He's hard to beat anyway. But when you give somebody a 70- or 80-point bonus, that's a free bad race you can get. Seems like you can only afford one of them. For us it's about keeping even keel with them right now."
On The Line: Kurt Busch On NASCAR CAM Video Teleconference
Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge), eight in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings heading into the Dover weekend, was the guest on this week's NASCAR Teleconference. Following are some excerpts from the Tuesday event.
Q: You ran really well on the concrete at Bristol back in the early spring. What are the challenges of running on a concrete track like Dover?
KURT BUSCH: "The biggest issues on concrete tracks in my mind, and maybe it's something I've got to get over, is the fact that they rubber up much more vigorously than asphalt tracks. They go through more of a mood swing.
"So early in the weekend when you first get there, the concrete is fresh, it doesn't have that rubber -filled -in look, and then by the time the checkered flag drops, the track is really rubbered in, gets really slick and hard to get a hold of."
Q: You have not won at Dover yet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. What type of challenge does that track present that you may be still trying to get a handle on?
KURT BUSCH: "I had the opportunity to win there in the truck series, but I haven't crossed the line first in the Cup series. It's just the longer races, the more the track rubbers in, it makes it really hard for the front tires to turn and to maintain that pace all day long. Last year we had two top -five finishes at Dover. We'll polish up on that set-up hopefully using some of the ideas we had from Texas' win last fall, because I think Dover races more like a mile and a half than it does like a mile race track."
Q. You're coming to be known as a good survivor of the green-white checkered, especially with your win in Atlanta, and also with your strong performance at the end of Richmond, surviving the three attempts and coming from 29th to finish eighth. What is your overall opinion now of the green-white checkered rule since Atlanta? Is it becoming a good thing, or is three attempts too many?
KURT BUSCH: "Well, it's a rule that they made, and we have to do our best job to get the best result at the end of the day. Green-white checkereds can work in your favor or they can work against you. What has happened in our sport with double -file restarts and then all of these green-white checkers at the end, the game is not over until it's over, and you have to stay in it to win it, whether you've been running good all day or whether you just got back on the lead lap and you're trying to scrap for positions best that you can."
A 'Monster' Resurgence: Roush Fenway Looks For Victory Lane Return
With competition being what it is in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, most teams go through a series of ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys.
Roush Fenway Racing knows this all too well.
The team won the first two races of the 2009 season, both by Matt Kenseth. Since then, it has just one victory -- by a driver who is not with the team anymore (Jamie McMurray at Talladega last November).
Despite a winless first 11 races, Roush Fenway has run well in 2010. They have scored 19 top-10 finishes, and three of its drivers -- Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle -- are in the top 12 of the series points standings.
But the lack of victories is a sticking point. The team has come close a few times. At Atlanta, Kenseth scored a runner-up finish, the team's best finish this season. In that event, he posted a Driver Rating of 107.9. At Bristol, Biffle finished fourth, leading 78 laps, the most by an RFR driver this season. In that race, Biffle had a Driver Rating 119.7, the team's highest this season.
In that Bristol race, Roush drivers finished fourth, fifth and sixth. That might be a foreshadow of this weekend.
Dover is sometimes called "Bristol on steroids" because of its similar concrete surface and steep banking.
Roush Fenway, with eight Dover victories, might find the one-mile track a perfect spot for their first victory in 14 races.
One of three RFR drivers currently in the top 12 are the best bet for a Dover win: Greg Biffle: Biffle has been slumping of late, with two consecutive finishes outside the top 20. But the slump should end there. Statistically, he is the top driver at Dover with series-best stats in Driver Rating (114.7) and Average Running Position (6.9).
Carl Edwards: Edwards, nicknamed "Concrete Carl," earns the tag when he hits Dover. Edwards has finished in the top three in five of the last seven races, and has scored a Driver Rating of at least 114.3 in six of the last seven. Edwards is looking to end a personal 47-race winless drought.
Matt Kenseth: Kenseth has finished in the top five in each of the last four Dover races, and has scored a Driver Rating of at least 100.1 in nine of the last 10. Since the inception of Loop Data in 2005, at Dover, Kenseth has a Driver Rating of 112.6, an Average Running Position of 7.1, 306 Fastest Laps Run, 634 Laps Led and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 89.4%.
Dover's Emphasis Is On The Driver
Dover International Speedway -- "The Monster Mile" -- is one of only three concretesurfaced tracks that hosts NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events.
Since you'll ask, the others are .533-mile Bristol Motor Speedway and .526 Martinsville Speedway, which boasts an asphalt-concrete hybrid (concrete in the turns, asphalt on the straightaways).
And yes, there are differences.
To begin, many in the sport deem Dover a super-sized Bristol with its 24 degrees of banking in the turns and the G-force rigor it imposes on drivers and cars.
But at one mile in distance, Dover presents its own challenges.
Substitute concrete for the more typical NASCAR asphalt, and driver "feel" becomes paramount.
Tony Stewart, a two-time Dover winner, says some approaches remain the same -- more or less.
"I don't think you drive it any differently," he said. "But because it is concrete, the track has a lot more bumps than an asphalt track would.
"There are seams in Dover's surface and places where they've cut the concrete for expansion. Those sections shift and change, and every year when you go there the bumps are a little bit different than they were the year before. Dover is a track that's constantly changing."
Radical adaptations usually don't work, according to Stewart -- "You still have to do the same things you always do. It's just a matter of finding the package that's right for that racetrack."
But prowess and experience can matter more, on concrete.
"With the way the cars slide around on the race track late in the day, there are times when a driver can make up for what the car won't do," Stewart said.
"They can move around on the race track and help themselves out by finding a faster groove."
• The King In The Spotlight: NASCAR legend and Hall of Fame inductee Richard Petty will serve as the Grand Marshal for Sunday's Autism Speaks 400 presented by Hershey's Milk and Milkshakes. A seven-time Dover winner and the owner of Richard Petty Motorsports, Petty also will participate in a free fan Q&A on Saturday, May 15 at the Monster Monument at Victory Plaza, presented by AAA. The session begins at 10 a.m., moderated by ESPN's Allen Bestwick.
Petty will be accompanied by one of his RPM drivers, AJ Allmendinger, whose No. 43 Ford will sport a special Petty throwback paint scheme. The King, along with NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., longtime NASCAR CEO and Chairman Bill France Jr., seven-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt and legendary owner/driver Junior Johnson will be formally honored on Sunday, May 23rd, during the NASCAR Hall of Fame Inaugural Induction Ceremony.
• NASCAR Foundation Track Walk: Following Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series Heluva Good! 200, fans can lace up and join NASCAR drivers and personalities for the NASCAR Foundation Track Walk. Participants include drivers Joey Logano (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet), Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Crown Royal Black Ford), David Reutimann (No. 00 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota), Bobby Labonte (No. 71 TRG Motorsports Chevrolet) and David Ragan (No. 6 UPS Ford), crew chief Steve Letarte, television personalities Krista Voda and Wendy Venturini, and CAT Country's Dixie and Wade. For more information visit www.foundation.nascar.com.
• Joe Nichols Concert: Grammy-nominated country music artist Joe Nichols will sing the national anthem prior to Sunday's Autism Speaks 400 presented by Hershey's Milk and Milkshakes. He's also scheduled for a free 9 a.m. concert on the Victory Plaza stage outside of Turn 4. Nichols' hits include "Gimmie That Girl" -- currently No. 1 on the Billboard country music chart.
The Race: Autism Speaks 400 Presented by HERSHEY'S Milk & Milkshakes
The Place: Dover International Speedway
The Date: Sunday, May 16
The Time: 1 p.m. (ET)
Race Distance: 400 miles / 400 laps
TV: FOX , Noon ET
Radio: MRN & Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128. (Local: WDOV-AM 1410 and WDSD-FM 94.7.)
2009 Polesitter: David Reutimann
2009 Winner: Jimmie Johnson
Schedule Prior To Race Day:
Friday -- Practice, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m., Qualifying, 5:10 p.m.
Saturday -- Practice, 11a.m. to 12:15 p.m. and 12:50-1:50 p.m.
Up Next: NASCAR Sprint All-Star Week In Charlotte