Column By: ZACH STURNIOLO / NASCAR – DOVER, DE – Sunday’s Drydene 400 at Dover International Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is set to be more than the opening race in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Round of 12.
The Monster Mile is hosting its 100th Cup Series event, celebrating the concrete oval’s 50th year on the schedule with twice-yearly events.
It is not lost on Mike Tatoian, the track’s president and CEO, what it means to head a facility that has reached the half-century mark.
“Obviously, I haven’t been here for all 50 years,” Tatoian said. “But I think it really does reflect the relationships that we really have enjoyed over the years with so many different groups of people that have provided the opportunity to celebrate 100 races.”
The track has seen its fair share of frequent winners – Richard Petty and Bobby Allison have seven victories apiece and Jeff Gordon and David Pearson each won five times – but no one has visited Dover’s victory lane more than Jimmie Johnson.
The seven-time Cup champion has 11 wins in Delaware, and although he finds himself outside of the Playoffs for the first time in his career, Johnson appreciates the role Dover has played in his career.
“My first time driving a car here, I think it was (1998), maybe ’99 in an ASA car,” Johnson said. “I just couldn’t believe there was a track shaped like this. The elevation changes, which are kind of hard to see unless you’re out there, in and off the turns, the amount of banking, the amount of grip, how wide it was, it just blew my mind then and I still come back every time and still have that same realization.”
Johnson’s career-long winless streak sits at 88 races, with his last points victory coming at the Monster Mile in June 2017. Johnson was third-fastest in Friday’s first practice and 11th in final practice and carries optimism into Sunday’s race.
“Really happy with the way practice went (Friday),” Johnson said. “It’s always helpful coming to a track that you know and have success at. That can help steer the team with our adjustments in a way that I think will be helpful.”
DENNY DELIVERS CUP START NO. 500 at DOVER
Denny Hamlin and Miles the Monster have never quite meshed.
Hamlin has never conquered Dover, but he and the track share a special connection this weekend: Hamlin’s 500th career Cup Series start coincides with the track’s centennial race. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota also qualified on the pole for Sunday’s race.
In 27 starts at Dover, Hamlin has just four top fives and 11 top-10 finishes. He finished 21st earlier this year and was second to Chase Elliott in this race a year ago.
“There’s just some racetracks that don’t necessarily suit your style quite as much, and this has just been one of them over the course of my career,” Hamlin said. “Really, I have to learn how to drive differently and erase 20-something years of habits when I come to this racetrack. So it’s very difficult but I feel like we’ve done a good job of that so far this weekend.”
The biggest challenge behind the wheel at Dover for Hamlin stems from his roots.
“I think I’m generally a short-track guy that works on being easy on entry and hard on the exit,” Hamlin said. “This is a racetrack that kind of rewards the opposite of that. So I think that retraining my brain and my technique when I come here is what I have to do.”
In the lead up to his 500th start, Hamlin, a 35-time winner at the premier level and a four-time winner this season, has been sharing videos on social media recapping his top five moments and his “not top five” races.
One race that didn’t make the list? The 2010 Goody’s Headache Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
“We pitted with three or four laps to go, something like that, restarted ninth and came back and won,” Hamlin said. “We had a caution that really helped us get back up to the front, but that was just one where I thought we had given the race away and the next thing you know, we come back and win it.”
BLANEY EAGER TO BETTER HIS DOVER TRACK RECORD
Ryan Blaney enters the Round of 12 beneath the cutoff line in 10th place. After the race at Kansas Speedway in two weeks, the Playoff field will be dwindled to eight drivers.
Blaney has not found much success at Dover International Speedway. In seven starts, Blaney has two top 10s with a best finish of eighth twice and has never led a lap here.
“I feel like we’ve had OK runs here and not anything great,” Blaney said. “So you try to come into these places with a different mindset and try to switch things up.”
With the volatile nature of Talladega Superspeedway lurking next week, he and his Team Penske team understand they’ll need a good run at Dover to avoid a must-win situation going forward.
“You definitely want to start your round off on the right foot, especially with Talladega. You don’t know what can happen there,” Blaney said.
Track position proved critical in the spring race earlier this season. Starting 10th on Sunday, Blaney will have a decent position for the green flag, but passing may prove problematic.
“You’re going so fast here and everyone hugs the bottom,” Blaney said. “It was a little bit difficult to pass in the Spring. Just kind of how it is.”
“I think you’ll see a mixed bag of strategies (Sunday) as far as two tires, things like that, how the stages end and where the cautions fall. You saw a little bit of that in the Spring race and I think you’ll see a little bit of that tomorrow. I think you’ll see more of it (Sunday) with some of the Playoff guys. You’ve got to have big days.”
“Track position’s always been key, but here it’s been a little bit more important than other places.”