Points Leader Stewart Needs To Reverse Concrete Trend At Dover
Saturday, October 01, 2011
Two-time Brickyard 400 winner and “Indiana’s Own” Tony Stewart has vaulted to the lead in NASCAR’s Chase to the Championship by winning the first two races of the 10-race playoff that will determine the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. Stewart, from Columbus, Ind., will attempt to win his third race in a row Sunday, Oct. 2 at Dover Downs International Speedway but admits the “Monster Mile” may be his weakest track of the 10 that make up the Chase.
Stewart takes a seven-point lead over 2003 Brickyard 400 winner Kevin Harvick into Sunday’s 400-lap battle on the concrete high banks of Dover where he swept both races in 2000 but those are his only two victories in 25 starts at Dover. He has 10 top five and 15 top 10 finishes but was a distant 21st in this race last year and 29th in the first race in May.
“We just haven’t been very good here the last couple of races, so we definitely need to pick up our performance this week,” Stewart said Friday at Dover. “We weren’t good before Atlanta, and Atlanta started a four-week stretch now that’s been really good. I don’t know why it’s turned around or what’s been the answer for it, but I’m happy it’s been that way.”
With a concrete racing surface, Dover is the only track in the Chase that isn’t paved with asphalt. Stewart explained some of the differences racing at Dover.
“I don’t think you drive it (the Dover concrete surface) any differently but because it is concrete, the track has a lot more bumps than an asphalt track would,” Stewart said. “There are seams in Dover’s surface and places where they’ve cut the concrete for expansion. Those sections shift and change, and every year when you go there, the bumps are a little bit different than they were the year before. Dover is a track that’s constantly changing, but it’s one of those places where you really can’t change your driving style. You still have to do the same things you always do. It’s just a matter of finding the package that’s right for that racetrack. But other than that, you go through the same set of scenarios and challenges you would on any asphalt track – either the car is going to be tight or it’s going to be loose.
“Dover is a track that is kind of a two-phase deal. It’s easy to get your car too tight in the center (of the corner) trying to get it to drive up off the corner nice, and it seems like if you get it to rotate through the corner, then it’s way loose off. Those are the two things that you really battle there. It’s the sacrifice of where do you want to be a little bit off to accomplish having a balanced car.”
While Stewart has vaulted to the lead in the standings heading to Dover, Harvick is just seven points back and is in prime position to regain the lead at Dover. Harvick has never won at the 1-mile oval but has two top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 21 starts. He was 15th last September and 10th last May.
“You don’t do anything any different than you would any other week,” Harvick said Friday. “It’s just another racetrack that you try to do the same things that you do every week. You focus on the points every week. Anybody who tells you they are not paying attention to the points is lying. You go out and you try to gain the maximum points every week, and you want to know who is around you to know what you need to do as far as the points goes. It is a weekly battle, for sure.”
Although he has never driven to victory at Dover, Harvick is encouraged that Sunday’s race can be a good result.
“We’ve had a good car there (Dover) the last several times and haven’t necessarily got the finishes that we probably have deserved with where we ran all day, but it’s been a decent racetrack for us,” Harvick said. “It’s a fast racetrack. You’ve got to keep up with the racetrack as the groove moves around and the rubber builds up on the track. The biggest challenge is being able to get the car up off of the corner under power, wide open throughout the whole run.
"We’ll have to have our Chevrolet handling good because it’s so fast and there are so many things happening so fast that the driver has to be comfortable in the car. It seems like at Dover they always have one of those runs where you have green-flag pit stops and halfway through that run the caution comes out, so you have to be a little bit lucky to not end up on the wrong side of that there."
Four-time Brickyard 400 champion Jeff Gordon made a huge gain last week at New Hampshire as he gained six positions in the standings. He moved up from 11th to fifth place heading to Dover. He is 23 points behind first place Stewart.
“We had the race there that we needed to have,” Gordon said of his fourth-place finish at New Hampshire last Sunday. “Obviously we were in a position to get a little bit more than what we did, but, still, to get that top-five was big for us. I hope that we can keep that momentum going. Chicago was definitely not a good race for us. But to have that good run at New Hampshire, allows us to focus on what we need to do here. I feel really good."
Gordon has been outstanding at the Delaware oval with four wins but hasn’t driven to victory since June 2001. Those four wins are part of his 14 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes in 37 starts, but he was 11th in both races in 2010 and 17th back in May.
“We weren’t great here, but we were a lot better than the result showed,” Gordon said of the May race. “That last stop; some guys stayed out; some guys took two tires. I was in a car that took two tires and was on the inside. I picked the third lane and on the restart, my car wasn’t very good on the restarts. That’s the one thing that were lacking. And then the outside lane was the place to be here on the restarts. It’s so….we got back to the guys then that had four tires and it was just a downhill battle from there. We had a bad result, that we, I feel like have really made big gains in our race cars since we were here last.
The only other track on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule with a concrete surface is Bristol – a half-mile, high-banked short track. Dover may be twice as long, but Gordon believes there are some similarities to the two venues.
“I hope it translates,” Gordon said. “We’re certainly trying to make it translate. I feel like we’re better this weekend because of some things that we did at Bristol that we learned there. But it’s a different racetrack than Bristol. You put that one-mile in length race track versus a half-mile, it changes things a lot. The loads that you experience here and in the balance that you have to have here. Plus the way the rubber gets laid down on the racetrack here changes things a lot. But I do feel like we are a lot closer this time than we were last summer.”
Three-time Brickyard 400 winner Jimmie Johnson has gotten off to a very slow start in the Chase and is back in 10th place after the first two races. He is already 29 points out of first place and hopes to turn his season around at Dover, where he has an incredible six wins, including this race in 2010. Those six victories are included in his eight top five and 13 top 10 finishes in 19 starts. He was ninth back in May and has three wins in his last five Dover starts.
“We’re excited to be at Dover,” Johnson said. “It is arguably one of our best tracks for the No. 48 team. Just excited to be here even from a qualifying standpoint. We all know how important qualifying is. This track has been real good to us in a lot of ways and we could leave here with a great run. Hopefully a win and get some great momentum working for our efforts for our sixth championship and make a whole bunch of points. So I’m excited for this weekend’s opportunity.”
Johnson also admitted feeling a sense of urgency heading into the third race of the Chase because he can’t afford to fall any further behind.
“We’ve been in this position before and have been behind,” Johnson said. “Pressure, yes -- there is pressure to perform each and every week. Some from the outside and ton from the inside -- inside of my own head, inside of my own team. We know what we are capable of, and we’ve clearly done an amazing job over the last five years. But, it doesn’t guarantee anything for this year. There is pressure within that point, as well. Yes, in pro sports, including NASCAR … pressure is everywhere. These final 10 races take that whole pressure scale and multiply it by some crazy number. Pressure is everywhere for every team.
“I don’t think we’re in a position where it’s win or nothing. We need to get a top-three run here. There are still eight races left."
When it comes to Chase experience, nobody has more depth to draw from than Johnson. That because the No. 48 team has won the last five Cup titles in the Chase.
“Experience is extremely helpful and important,” Johnson said. “We’ll need to pull on seasons, maybe like 2006 where we got off to a slow start and were able to rally back and end up on top. We’re doing all we can, I can promise you. Everybody at Hendrick Motorsports is giving us all that they have. My No. 48 team is committed and focused on doing the best job they can, and I am, as well. We look forward to putting up a great finish the weekend.”
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