Concrete and Crabcakes

BY Darrell Waltrip • September 28, 2011

So this weekend our little traveling circus moves to Dover International Speedway for race No. 3 in the 2011 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup. One of the cool things about Dover is it probably has more nicknames floating around than Darlington. I mean you’ve got the Monster Mile. Their mascot is appropriately named Miles the Monster. With it being a concrete track, the place is also called the Concrete Canyon. Nicknames like that go a long way in helping you understand how difficult that joint is.

Trust me, it is one tough racetrack. Back in the day, we used to race 500 miles there. It was like an endurance race. Like Bristol once was, Dover was also asphalt. Following in Bristol’s footsteps, Dover was turned into an all-concrete track. Fortunately for the guys today, the races have been shortened to 400 miles. That’s still a tough race.

It averages out to be about a four-hour race, which is longer than some of the races we run. Goodness knows what all can happen within those four hours. Bizarre things happen at Dover. Think back a couple of years ago when Joey Logano flipped over and went tumbling down the third turn.

The other thing you always hear us talk about is that Dover is a self-cleaning racetrack. That’s because of the banking in the turns. The straightaways also have quite a bit of banking compared to other racetracks. So anytime there is a problem, the cars just automatically head left down toward the inside wall.

We’ve seen some nasty wrecks there. Go back and look at Clint Bowyer’s wreck in the Nationwide Series race there this spring. It was a nasty-looking accident. There were parts and pieces flying everywhere. Talk about crazy: A spring from Clint’s car flew into Clint’s pit and hit one of his crew members. That’s just kind of how this joint is. It’s definitely unpredictable. At times it can get wild and crazy.

I can tell you one guy who is hoping that the Monster Mile is actually predictable: Jimmie Johnson. He and his team have been pretty dominating at Dover. They’ve won six times there, including the past two fall races. I think if they are going to get themselves back up front and make a statement to the other 11 teams, it has to be this weekend at Dover.

They need to go in there and win the Big 3. They need to win practice, win the pole and then win the race. They need to get max points, as No. 48 crew chief Chad Knaus likes to call it. They can’t afford to go into Dover and struggle like they have been these past few weeks. If they do have issues this weekend, I would lean towards championship No. 6 falling by the wayside.

Everyone has speculated throughout the year as to who might step up and take the crown away from the No. 48. Carl Edwards got hot for a while. So did Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch. You would struggle to find anyone who would have picked Tony Stewart to be the dominant one in this Chase.

Tony had been running better the last couple of races leading into the Chase. He certainly carried that momentum right on through and has won the first two races of the Chase. But I’m not saying you can tell the engraver to start putting Tony’s name on the championship trophy just yet.

Now sure, those have been two solid runs by the No. 14 car, but history has shown us that just because you win the first two races, you are not a lock to win it all. If you don’t believe me, go ask Greg Biffle. In 2008, he did exactly what Tony has done this year, yet failed to sit at the head table at the awards banquet.

Things can and do change rapidly these days in NASCAR. Three weeks ago, Stewart was telling everyone he didn’t have a chance and really shouldn’t be in the Chase. Now here he sits with two wins under his belt. It is even more surprising when you stop and remember he never won a single event in the first 26 races of the season.

Teams now have so much data available to them that you really can see their fortunes change almost overnight. That No. 2 car of Brad Keselowski and No. 22 of Kurt Busch are living proof of that. Let’s face it, for the first part of the season, neither car was very good. The folks at Penske Racing made some changes and both cars came alive. So it can and does happen.

Speaking of the No. 2 car, like Tony winning these last two weeks, Brad has been a big surprise to a lot of people this year. That hot streak he got on after his practice wreck at Road Atlanta is definitely something folks will be talking about for a long time.

It’s interesting to me that at the start of the Chase, Tony was in ninth place with no bonus points because he hadn’t won a race. Brad, on the other hand, had three wins, but because he was in a wild-card slot and not in the top 10 in points, he didn’t receive any bonus points for his wins. In only two weeks’ time, Tony is sitting atop the Chase seven points ahead of Kevin Harvick, while Brad is now third, only 11 points behind Tony.

I like where Brad is. Another one of the favorite sayings you hear us talk about is “Sometimes what you don’t know, you don’t know.” That No. 2 car has a rookie crew chief and a young driver combined with the veteran leadership of a true racing icon, Roger Penske. I think they could be the real big surprise in this Chase.

I believe the Year of Surprises will continue. These past two weeks have shown us that. We started in February with a surprise in the Daytona 500 and now here we are getting ready to begin October and we still are having surprises. Think about how cool it would be for Keselowski to set the sport on its ear and win it all.

Back at Pocono this young man, while having a win under his belt, still was outside the top 20 in points, and that win couldn’t be counted to help get him into the Chase. Now here he is, having started as a wild card and only 11 points out of first place.

You would be crazy to count them out. I don’t. Those Dodges are bad-fast. That No. 2 car has been good at Dover for a long time. Their car wasn’t all that great at Chicago, but they tweaked it and came home in fifth. Using pit strategy last weekend, they were able to snag a second-place finish.

So you have that young team that is in its first Chase while, at the same time, everyone thought the experienced group over there at the No. 24 might have the hot hand. However, all that momentum Gordon carried into the Chase hasn’t work out for him. He and his team have struggled with fuel mileage and a couple of other things. Jeff did get a great finish of fourth on Sunday in Loudon, but only closed the gap between him and Stewart by two points.

You have to stop and give NASCAR the credit it deserves for this new simplified point system. It’s tightened the field. It’s easier to understand and it’s created a lot of interest again with the fans. I also think the struggles of the No. 48 team have given hope to a lot of others. Jimmie’s won only one race this year. He’s never done that. Heck, even his rookie year he won three races. So these other teams see the door might be open for someone else to wear the crown.

So that has got the competitors and the fans fired up. Dale Earnhardt Jr. being more and more competitive this year has gotten folks fired up as well. Two flat tires cost he and his team dearly Sunday at Loudon, and the best they could salvage was a 17th-place finish. Even though he dropped three spots in the points to eighth, he still is within striking distance. So don’t count him out.

One organization that is entering Dover on a high note has to be Roush Fenway Racing. Jack Roush’s four teams finished third (Biffle), sixth (Matt Kenseth), seventh (David Ragan) and eighth (Carl Edwards) last weekend. Those Fords love Dover too, so expect to see them make some noise this weekend.

I am curious to see which direction that No. 18 team of Kyle Busch goes from this point forward. Their history in the Chase is less than stellar. They always seem to carry a full head of steam into the Chase and then flounder. It’s not all Kyle’s fault. He doesn’t create a loose wheel or problems in the pits.

They did recover to finish 11th on Sunday. That helped them a ton after a lousy 26th-place finish in Chicago. They’ve now jumped three spots in the points to sixth. That ties them with Kenseth and Earnhardt. Those three teams are 26 points behind Tony.

So the teams will have a hard race this weekend at the Monster Mile. Following that are two 1.5-mile tracks: Kansas and Charlotte. Jeff Gordon, Kyle, Carl and Jimmie are ones to watch there. Following that is what I call the Lotto 500, the wild-card race we know as Talladega. So following that, we leave our biggest track on the circuit and go to our smallest one: the paperclip of Martinsville.

It’s hard to believe, but once we leave Martinsville, there are only three races left: Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. I think everyone would agree that Phoenix is going to be somewhat of an unknown because of the repaving of the track that’s been done.

By the time we get to Phoenix — and thank you, Glen Campbell, for that iconic song — we’ll have a pretty clear picture of who is out and who is in. We’ll pretty much know who has a shot at the title and who is simply trying to put a win on the board.

I’m excited about how this has played out so far, not only at the start of the Chase, but also all year. We have some exciting racing coming up at all kinds of different-sized tracks. With as much as the fuel strategy has impacted things all year long, I won’t be a bit surprised if we don’t see Sunoco fuel, or the lack of it, playing a major role in who our 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion will be.

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