What lessons were learned at Dover?

Many things improve with age, but that’s not the case with all racetracks.

As a track weathers, it develops character. Yet Mother Nature can also contribute to a track’s demise. So the debate continues: to repave or not.

Over the last few years, track owners have had an unusual number of repaves with Pocono Raceway, Michigan Speedway and Kansas Speedway all undergoing facelifts this season. And Bristol Motor Speedway is currently grinding its top groove after playing to a half-full house in the spring.

But after logging many miles, drivers develop intimate relationships with the bumps and crannies that are unique to each surface. So it’s not surprising if given the choice, most drivers would prefer that tracks never undergo repaving projects.

“New pavement typically is not as conducive for great racing as old pavement is,” says veteran Mark Martin. “I thought everyone knew that. New asphalt is a tremendous challenge from the tire manufacturer’s standpoint.

“It’s incredibly fast. It’s faster than we need to go in these cars. It makes it hard to pass. It typically lends itself to one-lane racing worse than an old wore-out racetrack where you search around on a racetrack. If we can get away with not paving these places, the racing is typically better."

Of course, that’s not practical or realistic. Track repaving is simply a necessary evil associated with racing. But Martin is correct. At Michigan and Pocono, where a two-day test begins on Wednesday prior to this weekend’s events, speeds were up dramatically at earlier tire tests. Kasey Kahne’s lap times during the Goodyear tire test in April were more than 2 mph faster than his qualifying record of 172.533 mph, set in June 2004 on the 2.5-mile track.

Lap times at Michigan in April topped out at 215 mph by Jeff Gordon entering the corners and prompting drivers to predict that Ryan Newman’s pole-record speed of 194.232 mph set in 2005 will also fall.

For Denny Hamlin, who has four wins in 12 Pocono starts, he’s approaching the weekend as if he were racing “an entirely different racetrack.”

“We’ve gone through a lot of rule changes and surface changes at that track every time that we’ve gone back and so it’s going to be another element that’s changed,” Hamlin said. “It’s going to be interesting to see what tire that they brought back.

“Any advantage I thought I might have had at Pocono has obviously disappeared at this point. I go there with a lot of optimism that it’s just a brand-new track for everyone and it’s going to be the first one to figure it out wins."

Fortunately, the playing field will be equal for all 43 Sprint Cup teams as testing starts Wednesday for the Pocono 400. With ample time to dial in cars for the race – which is shortened by 100 miles this year – it will be curious to watch strategy change and storylines unfold throughout Sunday afternoon.

Here are 10 other tidbits to ponder before racing resumes this weekend:

1. Go time

With half of the 2012 regular season in the books, how does your favorite driver stand? If he’s not in the top 11 right now or among the top 20 with multiple wins and eyeing the wild-card spot, it could be a long Chase for the Sprint Cup season ahead. Only two of the drivers within the top 12 at this point in 2011 – Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle – were knocked out after 26 races. But let’s not forget Brad Keselowski’s remarkable run last year. He was 25th in the points standings after 12 races, won the 13th race to jump up to 21st and then locked himself into the top 11 with victories at Pocono and Bristol in August. There’s certainly time for four-time champ Jeff Gordon, who currently finds himself 21st in the standings and tied with Jamie McMurray. Gordon has endured his fair share of bad luck this season – including a loose tire on Sunday. But as solid as Hendrick Motorsports is right now, Gordon must be considered more than a long shot, particularly when heading into Pocono Raceway. With five career victories, Gordon leads all current Sprint Cup drivers. Bill Elliott also has five wins at the tricky triangle.

2. The Roushkateers

Greg Biffle continues to hold on to the top spot in the points standings, but his lead shrunk to just one point after teammate Matt Kenseth finished third – eight positions ahead of the No. 16 Ford team, which struggled with handling issues at Dover. Unless something catastrophic happens over the next 13 races, the Roush Fenway Racing veterans have nothing to worry about. Still, both drivers could use a few insurance wins, but not as desperately as their RFR mate Carl Edwards, who hasn’t won since Las Vegas in 2011, 46 races ago. Edwards, who blew a tire and slammed into the wall while running fifth at Dover, finished 26th and dropped to 12th in the points standings, 15 points outside of the Chase. As consistent as Edwards was in 2011, it’s surprising to see this team struggle to post top-five finishes or lead laps on a weekly basis.

3. New car smell

It’s hard to believe that until Clint Bowyer finished fifth on Sunday it had been nine races since his last and only top five of the season. But here’s something else to consider – in his 12 previous starts at Dover, Bowyer had never scored a top five at that track. Bowyer bounced up two positions to 10th in the points standings and could be getting hot just when it counts. Bowyer has led just five laps in the first 13 races of the season but it will be curious to see what he can accomplish at the next two venues – Pocono and Michigan – where the tour will visit twice over the summer.

4. Shape shifters

In the last few years, Richard Petty Motorsports has endured its share of changes. From four cars to two. From one owner to two – and then three. From Dodge to Ford and perhaps to Dodge again in the near future. For the first time this season, and the first time since Phoenix in November, both RPM cars finished in the top 10 on Sunday. Sixth-place Aric Almirola posted his first top-10 finish since Martinsville and his best finish of the season. Marcos Ambrose, who participated in the Dover tire test, worked with crew chief Todd Parrott to improve the grip in his car and came from a lap down to finish 10th. Almirola and Ambrose, who are 17th and 19th respectively in the points standings, both made up ground on Sunday.

5. Job security

Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs says he’s not looking at shifting his driver lineup for 2013 although garage buzz has the company looking at expansion to four teams. And Ryan Newman’s name keeps popping up as a potential addition. However, Joey Logano’s current run under the direction of Jason Ratcliff has been consistent. The hype surrounding the youngster’s arrival into NASCAR was unwarranted. However, Logano’s eighth-place finish at Dover made him the top-finishing JGR driver on Sunday. While the 22-year-old is still lacking his first top-five Cup finish of the season, there’s still plenty of time.

6. Can’t have it both ways

For those who believe that Sprint Cup racing has been boring due to a lack of cautions, don’t complain to me that your driver didn’t go the distance at Dover if he was one of the 12 cars involved in the wreck nine laps into the race. Even Tony Stewart acknowledged that qualifying so poorly mired him in traffic. He still salvaged a 25th-place finish after nine cars that were involved in the accident parked over the course of the first 124 laps. Four additional cars parked for various and sundry causes. But only 19 drivers finished on the lead lap – six of which were beneficiaries following cautions.

7. Let’s go old school

Speaking of parking, when a car retires from a race rather than assigning some bogus diagnosis, couldn’t we just adopt the sanctioning body’s early designation of “Quit.” There’s no shame in quitting if you can’t afford to run the advertised distance. Then again, in Saturday’s Nationwide race there were only 42 cars in the field at the start of the race.

8. Less is more

Knowing that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a historian of the sport, it only seemed fitting to ask NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver what he thought about shrinking the current Sprint Cup schedule. Not surprisingly, Junior balanced the pros and the cons – the latter obviously economical for those particular racetracks. While the years that featured 48 events are long behind us, if the sanctioning body opted for a 30-race season, which tracks should lose a race and why? Do new markets such as Iowa and Montreal need to be integrated into the current schedule to attract potential fans?

9. Oh, the irony of it all

Does anyone believe it was a coincidence that Kurt Busch was the only driver busted for speeding on pit road on Sunday at Dover – not once, but twice? Funny how NASCAR has a way of sending not-so-subtle messages to drivers.

10. No Name Raceway

The 1.99-mile road course formerly known as Infineon Raceway lost its title last Friday as the naming rights to the track expired. The track has made it clear via a press release that it has "NOT renamed the facility ‘Sonoma Raceway’” in the interim as new sponsors are sought – but not until the fourth quarter of this year, long after June 24 Sprint Cup date. However, if you’re still sober after sampling many of fine establishments in wine country feel free to refer to the track as “the raceway in Sonoma” or tweet about it @racesonoma.