Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dover AAA 400: Hamlin-Harvick Feud Might Be Most Interesting NASCAR Story of 2010

By Micah Roberts

Coming into Dover this week as the second race in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship, the story lines all centered on last week's winner Clint Bowyer, and his team, being fined and having 150 points deducted for their car not making postrace specifications. Everyone had differing opinions on the matter, but most agreed that the penalty was harsh. The 150 points lost immediately dropped Bowyer from a contender to last in the Chase.

When the teams arrived at Dover on Friday, that was all everyone wanted to talk about. Bowyer and car owner Richard Childress pleaded their cases during the mandatory news conferences and announced that their appeal with NASCAR would be held Wednesday. Most of the drivers didn’t have anything to say and didn’t want to get involved, but one did, and he had a lot to say.

Denny Hamlin started talking on the matter. And he kept on talking. Just him alone, with dozens of reporters who just let him keep talking. They must have all been thinking, “Wow, this is some good stuff,” and it was.

By the time practice and qualifying was over, word had spread about Hamlin's comments. But nearly everyone was gone from the track, leaving the stage set for early Saturday morning when everyone would be back to respond. Childress bit his tongue when asked to respond, but Kevin Harvick responded an entirely different way by taking matters to the track.

Within the first five minutes of practice Harvick played the RCR team enforcer role — like a hockey goon defending his star player — and bumped the right rear of Hamlin's car a couple of times, and soon after, the right front fender as he sped away.

Both cars had minor damage and immediately came into the garage area for repairs where the fireworks continued. Hamlin didn’t have to go far to voice his displeasure, either, because his stall was right next to Harvick’s. Both crews did some yelling at each other and, when Hamlin got into the fray, Harvick quickly jumped out of his car and went straight for Hamlin with some choice words of his own.

What was turning out to be just another race in the Chase where we all kind of felt bad for Bowyer’s situation has now turned into a classic grudge match between two of the favorites to win the Chase. Harvick has led the season in points for almost the entire year, while Hamlin currently leads after the reseeding of the Chase format.

It couldn’t have gotten any better for NASCAR, its fans, sponsors and, most of all, TV. This is true reality TV with no scripts or built-in story lines. Even though NASCAR won’t publicly say so, this kind of drama is what they were hoping for when announcing before the season started that the series would loosen up on conduct policies, allowing drivers to show more personality.

We’ve seen NASCAR be true to its word this season in regard to the looser standards, but Brad Keselowski getting taken out by Carl Edwards or Kyle Busch doesn’t get anyone’s juices flowing. It’s exciting, but it’s definitely not of the Dale Earnhardt-Rusty Wallace magnitude. Harvick and Hamlin feuding — two of the top drivers in NASCAR — is about as interesting as anything that has happened in NASCAR this season.

From Harvick’s vantage point, this isn't about something that happened on the track, it’s worse. Insinuating that the entire RCR team has been shady all season, while Harvick has been leading the points all year, is an indirect slap at Harvick and his team. The manner in which Harvick handled his response may have been a bit over the top, but he definitely got his message across.

As for this week's race, it’ll be interesting to see how it unfolds on the track Sunday. Both Harvick and Hamlin had a rough early practice session as they scrambled to repair their cars, but rebounded during happy hour with some of the best speeds. Hamlin’s repaired car managed to have the eighth-best lap while Harvick had the fastest average speeds. Neither driver has had spectacular past runs at Dover, but each look to have top-10 cars.

Because of their history at Dover, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch stand out pretty broad among the other drivers. Johnson is a five-time winner on the track while Busch has won twice. The two drivers have combined to win four of the last five races there. Busch will try to accomplish the same feat Johnson did last year, and in 2002, when he swept the season. There have been nine drivers in track history who have swept the Dover season.

Busch’s best run of the day came when he finished second-fastest in the early session while all the drama was happening with his teammate and Harvick. Busch, incidentally, is much closer to Harvick on a personal level than Hamlin.

The driver to keep a close eye on this week who should give Busch and Johnson a tough battle for the win is Matt Kenseth, who was fourth-fastest during happy hour. Not only does Kenseth have a fast car this week, but he’s got history going for him as well with a streak of five straight top-four finishes at Dover.

The other Roush drivers should do almost as well because this has typically been a very good track for them. Johnson’s sweep last year ended a streak of five straight years that a Roush driver had won at Dover. Carl Edwards owns the track record of 8.7 for best average finish with a 2007 win while Greg Biffle is a two-time winner. Of the two, Biffle looked better in practice, but Edwards loves racing on concrete and should excel once again.

When going over Dover notes from this week, the May race and seasons past, I always like to include a small sampling of what happened at the two Bristol races. Even though Bristol is a half-mile shorter than Dover, Bristol’s new progressive banking and the concrete surface make the two tracks similar.

A driver sitting outside the Chase could be in store for a good run Sunday following his efforts in practice. Martin Truex Jr. had the third-fastest average speeds during happy hour on what is considered his home track. The Mayetta, N.J., native won the only race of his career at Dover in 2007.       

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