Friday, September 23, 2005
Dover will deliver its own brand of excitement
By Rupen Fofaria Special to ESPN.com
The fines and punishments have been levied, and on Sunday, NASCAR president Mike Helton is certain to issue a stern warning during the prerace drivers' meeting.
So it's back to regular racing, right?
Not quite. Although last weekend pitted a host of drivers pushing and shoving around a 1-mile racetrack, this weekend in Dover, Del., will offer much of the same -- as well as a concrete surface that drivers say has a way of jumping up and biting you.
"This track is called the Monster Mile to me because of its ability to just jump out there and bite you unexpectedly," said Ryan Newman, who has three victories at Dover and is coming off a victory at New Hampshire. "Tires can be a real issue at Dover due to aggressive set-up combinations.
"It's not rare to see some right front tires go down throughout the race. Once a tire goes down there, your car is headed towards the wall and it's not going to be pretty. Dover just has a way of eating you up."
Whether NASCAR's actions over the past week were enough to prevent future retaliatory measures from drivers who get wrecked by other racers remains to be seen. But it seems certain that this weekend will offer up yet another feasting of carnage from the track itself.
Add to that the fact that many of the most successful Dover pilots right now are Chase contenders, and things could get heated down the stretch.
"I think it'll be another exciting race," driver Mark Martin said.
Everyone involved is hopeful this week's excitement is for all the right reasons.
A winner at Dover in June, Greg Biffle hopes to be celebrating again on Sunday.
The favorite Greg Biffle has nothing but confidence going into this weekend's race, and good reason for it, too.
Coming into the Chase for the Nextel Cup, Biffle and his No. 16 team were most worried about getting through the playoff-opening race at New Hampshire International Speedway, the one venue among the final 10 where Biffle and Co. have struggled. Now, having taken a top-five away from New Hampshire, Biffle returns to Dover, the site of his fourth win of the season back in June.
While Biffle says there are too many unknowns at Dover to guarantee a victory, he feels certain that he can bring home another solid finish.
"We feel strong about another top-five finish and possibly a win," Biffle said. "You never know what can happen with pit stops and tire strategy and things like that, so I definitely feel confident with a top five."
Riding the wave Matt Kenseth maintained his status as the hottest racer on the circuit with his third-place finish at New Hampshire. The effort marked his fifth consecutive top-seven finish -- in which time he has leapt from 16th to fifth in the points standings.
Kenseth's bid to continue this hot streak is safe at Dover, where in his last six races Kenseth has notched fourth- and ninth-place finishes as well as two seventh-place finishes.
History on their side
Although Kenseth has four top 10s in his last six races at Dover and Biffle's got the most recent victory there, neither has shown the sustained success that Newman and Mark Martin have at the Monster Mile -- making each a threat to win, or at least secure another top-five finish.
Newman has won three of the last five races at Dover, and Martin has a first-, second- and third-place finish in his last three Dover runs.
"I love that place," Martin said, "and we couldn't be going to a better place right now."
Newman, unsurprisingly, is in agreement.
"The Alltel team has, continuously, run really well there," he said. "We already look forward to racing at Dover, and with last weekend's win in New Hampshire we're even more anxious to get there."
Cause for concern Kurt Busch is obviously concerned. He finished 35th after getting wrecked last weekend and is 10th in the standings with a lot of distance between him and the rest of the group. But Busch has a proven ability to go on streaks.
Chase contenders Carl Edwards and Jeremy Mayfield may be even more concerned. Each finished outside the top 15 last week -- not altogether awful, but because everyone else was among the top 10, the two have fallen a bit behind the pack.
Still, neither driver is deterred.
"We have one Chase race under our belt and we finished 19th," Edwards said. "I think championships are defined by your bad days, and if that's a bad day for us, I think we have a chance at the championship."
As for Mayfield, he's just happy he got out of the first Chase race with a top 30.
"Leaving there with a 16th-place finish, I'm like relieved because last year I was 30-something or 40th, whatever it was," he said, referring to his 35th-place finish last fall at New Hampshire. "I'm just looking forward to Dover because we run well there. It's one of my favorite tracks. Heck, we had two poles there last year and we might have had another one this year, a third one, if it hadn't rained qualifying out. It's just a place we run well at."
Don't forget Tony Stewart is the points leader and no slouch at Dover. Prior to finishing 15th in Delaware this summer, Stewart put together five straight top-five finishes there. And he never reacts to losing well, in recent times bouncing back for strong runs after coming up just short.
Giving up the lead with six laps to go last weekend hasn't sat well with the 2002 champ, so you can bet he's coming to Dover looking for redemption. Though Stewart says it's no different than how he approaches every other event.
"Every week we go out and we try to lead laps and we try to win races," he said. "That's what got us the point lead. There's no reason to change that."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.