Posted: 10:21 am Monday, May 16th, 2016
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
Matt Kenseth wins Sunday’s AAA 400 Drive For Autism at Dover International Speedway, but the win didn’t come easy nor did the race for anyone. Kenseth’s 37th-career win comes ahead of a caution-filled race and a charging young Kyle Larson (finished 2nd) and Chase Elliott (3rd). A massive wreck on a lap 356 restart eliminated several contenders and set up the thrilling drive to lap 400.
Flag to Flag: Rain canceled Friday qualifying and handed Kevin Harvick (15th) the pole, based upon Friday’s practice speeds. The Sprint Cup Series points leader actually had the dominant car on the day, as Harvick led 117 of the first 174 laps. But pit strategy mid-race shuffled Harvick outside of the top 10 after a succession of cautions and he never got it back. Harvick’s pit crew also cost the No. 4 car the lead and several spots on pit road through the race, that further stunted Harvick’s charge for a second win of the season.
Harvick traded the lead in the opening stage of the race with Carl Edwards (28th), but Edwards, too, took four tires on a mid-race pit stop when others took two tires or did not pit. When he finally got back to the front, he didn’t stay long.
The turning point of the race came on lap 356. Martin Truex Jr. (9th) gained track position by not pitting on lap 144 pit stops and then by only taking two tires later. He had led 47 laps on the day and had just raced hard to keep the lead from Larson. Truex Jr. lost the lead to 10-time Dover winner Jimmie Johnson (25th) on a pit sequence when things went sideways – literally.
Johnson had a transmission problem and could not get the No. 48 Chevy out of second gear on the restart. This bunched up the outside lane and Truex Jr. and those behind him started pushing Johnson, with nowhere to go on the narrow, high-banked track. The contact sent Johnson sideways and the wrecking cars blocked almost the whole track. Edwards, Kenseth, Elliott, Kasey Kahne (4th) and a few others made their way through the mess. But in the end, the crash damaged 18 cars and brought out the red flag.
Harvick, who had finally returned to the top 5, got his car crushed in the melee. Greg Biffle (29th), who led laps after some pit strategy, saw his car totalled. Joey Logano (22nd) ran as high as 2nd at one point and lost laps repairing damage. The “Big One” from Talladega two weeks ago struck again on a track less than half the size, but every bit as perilous when trouble breaks out.
When the race finally restarted with Kenseth in the lead, Edwards started on the inside and got loose coming out of turn 2 as the field poured through and kicked up speedy dry. The track almost looked slick and in such close quarters, Larson made contact with Edwards left-rear quarter panel, sending the No. 19 Toyota hard and head-first into the inside wall.
Kenseth kept the lead the rest of the race, but the stat sheets won’t show the valiant effort by Larson to finally get his first-career win. Larson tried every trick in the book – diving to the inside, diamonding the corner, accelerating early in the outside lane, giving Kenseth a bump – but he only ever could pull alongside the 43-year-old. Their battle drew Elliott into the fold and Elliott even briefly got around Larson for 2nd. But Larson got it back and mounted another charge on Kenseth as they came to the checkered flag. It wasn’t enough and Kenseth secured a spot in the Chase, while Larson settled for his fourth runner-up finish of his career.
Mechanical failures sent Matt DiBenedetto (40th) into the wall on lap 120, Regan Smith (39th) on lap 144, Austin Dillon (33rd) on lap 185, and Reed Sorenson (38th) on lap 214. Jamie McMurray (21st) got into Michael Annett (37th) on lap 237 and Annett wrecked hard. “Miles the Monster” ate plenty of equipment at the Monster Mile Sunday, showing just how on edge drivers have to be to be competitive. No forgiveness.
Battles through the race between Larson and leaders Brad Keselowski (6th), Truex Jr., and Kenseth and high drama with several crashes amongst contenders made this Dover race one of the more memorable at the Delaware track.
Top 10: Kenseth; Larson; Elliott (best-career finish); Kahne (hugely benefited from the carnage to tie for his best finish of season); Kurt Busch (ran in top 10 all race, but never led); Brad Keselowski (led some laps, got damage hitting the lapped car of Dillon); Denny Hamlin (stayed out of pits to gain track position, but pitted early and got bit by a caution); Ryan Blaney (another impressive run); Martin Truex Jr. (second-straight week wondering what might have been); Trevor Bayne (snuck in a top 10 after struggling most of the race).
The points: Kevin Harvick leads the traditional points by 21 over Kyle Busch and Busch leads the Chase standings by virtue of his three wins. Kenseth joins single-race winners Harvick and Hamlin and all are in the top 16 in the standings. The drivers in the top 16 without wins are Ku. Busch (3rd), Elliott (7th), Logano (8th), Truex Jr. (9th), Dillon (10th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (11th), McMurray (14th), Blaney (15th), and Kahne (16th). No drivers outside the top 16 have wins. Only 42 points separate 10th-in-points Dillon and 20th Ricky Stenhouse Jr. This points race is really heating up as we near the halfway point of the regular season.
RaceTweet: Kenseth holds off Larson and Elliott as huge wreck levels the field at Dover. Truex Jr. loses another one.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Kyle Larson – He did not lead the most laps or win, but Larson put on a whale of a show and led the second-most laps (85) in the field. After running well and getting taken out late in last week’s Kansas race, Larson’s crew told him on the radio to not give so many drivers a break. Larson had just gotten blocked aggressively on the track by Keselowski (who was in their scrum last week). Larson took note and raced the wheels off the No. 42 Chevy doing all but wrecking not just Kenseth, but also Truex Jr. and Keselowski in battling for the lead. Excellent.
North Korean Missile Dud: Jimmie Johnson – The all-time Dover wins leader only led four laps, spun out once in some engine oil, and then wrecked hard when his transmission failed. Johnson’s misfortunes were no fault of his own, but Sunday was a definite fail for the No. 48 team.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Clint Bowyer – Bowyer’s season of struggle with HScott Motorsports seemed to manifest itself again Sunday, as the No. 15 got lapped a couple of times under green. But the caution-riddled race allowed the Kansas driver to catch up a couple of times and even materialize in the top 10 after the huge lap 356 wreck. 12th is not a bad result at all.
Ghost Driver: Kyle Busch – Busch is arguably the hottest driver in the Cup Series and his stats at Dover include two wins. But Busch just flat didn’t have it Sunday, struggling mostly in the back of the top 10. On one run, Busch fell back as far as 16th. Then the 18-car mess eliminated Busch and relegated him to 30th at the end.
You Can Comeback, But You Can’t Stay Here: Brad Keselowski – Keselowski had just lost the lead to Larson when he and Dillon’s lapped car made serious contact. That tore the right-front fender off the No. 2 Ford, but the tire stayed up. Keselowski started losing spots, but a caution saved him and the team riveted on a new fender. Keselowski got mired back outside the top 20, but the big wreck and some other cautions allowed him to rebound for a top 10.
Wheel of Misfortune: Martin Truex Jr. – If Johnson’s car doesn’t stall in front of him on a restart, Truex Jr. likely duels with Kenseth and Larson for the win. Instead, the No. 78 sustains damage and can only muster 9th. His losses are more memorable than his wins.
Jimmie Johnson Golden Horseshoe: Matt Kenseth – He finally did not have bad luck, which means he had great luck, which means he won. Kenseth had no penalties, no wrecks, no failures. And when The Monster ate half the field, Kenseth was in front of it and saw some of the best cars taken out. Now he’s a Chase driver, providing a piano doesn’t fall on him.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: NASCAR needs to seriously look at the restart rules. Currently, the starter controls the start of the race and the leader controls every restart, provided they restart in the restart zone. This change came about a couple of years ago, when the rules used to state that the leader could not be beat to the start-finish line. The difficulty there, of course, is what if the leader has a problem or if the 2nd-place car is pushed ahead of the leader with no control? Apparently that is still a problem.
In Friday’s Camping World Truck Series race, leader Cole Custer got penalized for a restart violation and one of Saturday’s Xfinity Series heat races saw Elliott Sadler get black flagged for restarting before leader Daniel Suarez. Most of the time the new rule works, but this weekend saw it become controversial multiple times.
The solution many have said is simple: allow the starter to start the race every time. Regardless of who beats who to the start-finish line, regardless of when someone decides to jump to the throttle, the controversy is eliminated when the starter has the start in their hands. Rules changes in this sport come way too often, but this is one that could stand changing now, before it costs someone else a race win.
NXS RaceTweet: Erik Jones dominates and wins second race of year at Dover. Elliott Sadler leads Suarez by three points, despite the penalty.
NCWTS RaceTweet: Matt Crafton gets first win of year at Dover and now barely leads Timothy Peters in the standings.
Georgia On My Mind: Chase Elliott did Chase Elliott things Sunday: started and ran mid-pack, but slowly rose into the top 10. Then he almost did Bill Elliott things: steered through major wreck and staged furious battle to almost win. Elliott finished a career-best 3rd, behind Kenseth, who made his 1998 Cup debut subbing for an injured…Bill Elliott. Elliott now is an unforeseen 7th in points and in great position to make the Chase, even without winning. He is now 58 points ahead of A.J. Allmendinger, who is 17th in points.
David Ragan took a wave-around on the first caution to get back on the lead lap, but had a tire go down and lost three laps in the sequence. If he had either stayed a lap down and on pit sequence, or had not had that tire go down, Ragan would have been in great position to finish a few spots better. But finishing three laps down and still 17th is a rare thing and Ragan needed the decent finish, his first top 20 of the year. Ragan is 30th in points, which means if he wins a race, he could make the Chase.
Reed Sorenson also could have benefited from the high attrition, but a mechanical failure wrecked him and he placed 38th.
Saturday’s race was less prosperous for the Georgia gang. Brandon Jones finished 25th after getting pinched into the wall in the early laps. He is 7th in points. Ryan Sieg finished 16th, but ran top 3 at one point in his heat race. He sits 12th in the standings. He and Jones are both within the Xfinity Chase bracket. Garrett Smithley struggled and finished four laps down in 24th.
The NCWTS race was a bad one for John Wes Townley wrecked on lap 133 and finished 29th. He’s now a disappointing 20th in the standings, though he did lead three laps Friday.
Both Austin Hill and Brandon Jones technically withdrew from the race and finished it. Jones was listed in the No. 99 truck, but then raced the No. 71 Carlos Contreras-owned entry. Jones’ Ranier Racing with MDM team bought a spot in the field after qualifying was rained out. This was Jones’ first race of the season and he placed 20th. Austin Hill’s family-owned team also got bumped from the field after qualifying’s cancellation, so they bought the No. 1’s spot in the field and Hill to a 17th-place result.
Next: The Xfinity Series rests a week, while everyone comes home to Charlotte. The Sprint Cup Series Sprint All-Star Race is at 7:15 p.m. on FS1, MRN, and Sirus/XM Channel 90. The NCWTS race runs Friday night at 8:45 p.m. on all the same channels. A new format probably won’t spice up what is often been a tepid All-Star Race. But 2016 has seen some strange things.
Join me this Saturday from 3-5 p.m. at Rick Hendrick Chevrolet in Duluth on 3277 Satellite Blvd. We will have a live NASCAR broadcast leading up to the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Come or listen in to learn more about a big contest with NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne. See you then!