Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dover AAA 400 Preview

By Micah Roberts

Tony Stewart is now the favorite to win Chase in Las Vegas (Getty)
After two races into NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship, we have a new leader and new Las Vegas odds-on favorite. After not winning for the first 26 races of the season, Tony Stewart’s championship alarm clock has awoken the former champ and he’s won the first two events of the Chase. Stewart now has a 7-point lead over Kevin Harvick heading into this week’s event at Dover, Delaware.

The Las Vegas Hilton Super Book opened Stewart at 20-to-1 odds before the Chase started, with not many takers. But following his Chicago win, he was dropped to 9-to-2. The combination of a poor finish by five-time, reigning champ Jimmie Johnson not doing well at New Hampshire and Stewart winning has dropped him all the way to 5-to-2.

Jimmie J in the four-eight, or ‘five-time’ as he’s been called, is now 29-points behind the leader, but is still respected with odds of 6-to-1. That’s only 29 positions to make up with eight races to go, but based on this season where he’s only had one win, it could turn out to be an eternity. Could we be witnessing the fall of a dynasty in the same way we saw Roger Federer and Tiger Woods take a back seat in their sports?

It’s looking closer to being the end than it is that his team will miraculously become better than the first 28 races of the season.

Close behind Stewart is Kevin Harvick (-7 points, 7/2), Brad Keselowski (-11, 7/1) and Carl Edwards (-14, 4/1). My choice to win the Chase, Jeff Gordon, is currently 23 points behind with odds of 6-to-1, but has a lot more upside down the stretch than Johnson just because he’s been able to show he can dominate a race.

Denny Hamlin wasn’t thought of as a driver who could win the Chase, but was 15-to-1 when it started. After two awful performances, he’s 66-points behind the leader and can be had for 200-to-1 if having any reason to believe things will get better.

If there ever was a track on the schedule that could get Johnson going in the right direction again, it would be Dover. Five-time is a six-time winner on the track, including taking this race last season. He finished ninth in the first Dover race held in May, but led 207 of the 400 laps, most of which came in the early portion of the race.

Johnson using his Chicago/Kentucky chassis (Getty) 
“New Hampshire obviously wasn’t the finish we were looking for especially with how good we were throughout the weekend, " Johnson said. "I’m really looking forward to this weekend though. Dover has always been a good place for the 48 team and I really enjoy racing there. I’m not really sure why, but it has always just kind of suited my driving style.”

Matt Kenseth eventually won the first Dover race by opting to go with two tires in the final pit stop while perhaps the best car at the time, driven by Carl Edwards, took four tires.

That decision and same tire compound could prove to be a blessing for Edwards this time around as Kenseth paved the way for success. Edwards has a great history at Dover already with a 2007 win and not finishing worse than 11th in his last 10 starts there. The lesson learned the hard way could prove to be a good one for the No. 99 team this week.

Kenseth’s win was the second of his career at Dover. Since his first win in 2006, Kenseth has finished in the top-five in eight of 11 starts. He had a gritty sixth-place finish last week at New Hampshire in a car that he absolutely hated through practice and the race, which could lead to more success in races to come making him a factor in the Chase. He’s currently 26-points behind Stewart and has several of his best tracks coming up, beginning with Dover.

“This weekend, we’re bringing the same chassis we ran and won with at Dover back in May," said Kenseth's crew chief Jimmy Fennig. "Dover is Matt’s favorite track and that gives us a lot of motivation to have another solid run there this weekend. We were able to leave New Hampshire with a sixth-place finish at a track that has been a challenge for us in the past, so I’m looking forward to this weekend in order to help us make up some position in the point standings.”

Does Bristol translate over Dover, maybe a little bit? (Getty)
Although Dover is kind of in it’s own world with not a lot of comparisons because of the steep banking and one-mile concrete layout, Bristol is as close as it comes, especially since Bristol‘s repaving job in 2007 which gave it multiple grooves.

If we account for what happened in late August at Bristol, we have to look at Brad Keselowski who finished strong with a win in that race. Gordon led the most laps with Martin Truex Jr., Johnson and Kenseth all running well enough to win.

Gordon saw a rebound at Bristol the second time around and his crew chief, Alan Gustufson, thinks they can rebound at Dover this week the same way.

“I certainly hope so,” said the No. 24 crew chief. “We learned a lot from our first trip to our second at Bristol this year, and I’m hoping the success on that concrete track translates over to Dover this weekend.”

So how about Stewart’s chances of winning three straight races?

It looked as though Dover would be a track that he would dominate on over his career as he swept the 2000 season, but he hasn’t won there since, a span of 21 races. His runner-up finish in the spring of 2009 was his only top-five on the track since 2004. It would seem a long-shot for him to complete the tri-fecta this week, but he’s already beaten the odds by winning the first two, so you never know.

Top 5 Finish prediction:
1) #99 Carl Edwards (8/1)
2) #24 Jeff Gordon (7/1)
3) #17 Matt Kenseth (10/1)
4) #2 Brad Keselowski (12/1)
5) #48 Jimmie Johnson (7/1)

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