AAA 400 Preview
September 26, 2012
By Micah Roberts
Driver Highlights · Odds & Ends · Practice Notes
Denny Hamlin told the Twitter world last week that he would win at New Hampshire, and on Sunday, he made good on the call. After a disappointing 16th-place finish two weeks ago at Chicago, the win puts Hamlin right back in the mix of things, sitting in third place in the Chase standings with eight races to go.
Jimmie Johnson was runner-up for the second week in a row and holds a one-point Chase lead over Brad Keselowski and a seven-point lead over Hamlin.
Hamlin may have an edge on the four 1.5-mile tracks coming up and should fare better than most at Phoenix and Martinsville, but Dover, site of this week's race, is another story. Dover is Jimmie Johnson territory. A track that has rarely seen Johnson run out of the top-10 and one that he has conquered seven times over his career, including the first race held there this season in June where he led 289 of the 400 laps.
Hamlin, on the other hand, has not performed well at Dover over his 13 career starts (20.5 average) on the track. His best was fourth place, on two occasions, and he has finished 36th or worse four times. He comes in on a three-race mediocre stretch there that has seen him finish 16th or worse.
This is only one race in the Chase, but if Hamlin falters here with another 16th place finish, he’s going to have a tough time catching Johnson, because the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion is just too poised to get rattled down the stretch with a big lead.
Now of course, a driver can have all the poise, confidence and determination they want, but sometimes things happen that are out of their hands, like getting involved in other drivers’ messy wrecks. But two runner-up finishes going into one of his best tracks has Johnson looking every bit the 9-to-5 favorite to win it all offered by the LVH Super Book.
When Johnson isn’t dominating Dover, there’s a short list of drivers who always seem to be around the top-5 waiting for their chance at victory lane.
The most consistent one over the years has been Matt Kenseth, a two-time winner on the track that has finished fifth or better in eight of his past nine starts there. Kenseth is currently 11th in the standings, 35 points behind Johnson. He needs a lot of magic to happen from his end with also some misfortune everywhere else involving the other drivers, or more to the point: he needs them to wreck. He finished third in the June race with a car that was capable of winning.
Mark Martin is a four-time winner at Dover and had a car that looked like he might be able to give Johnson a run in June. He led 43 laps, but settled for a 14th place finish. He's been runner-up in two of his past six starts there.
Jeff Gordon led three times for 60 laps in the June race and is a four-time Dover winner. His last win there came in 2001, but he has to be considered this week not only because of a good run in June, but also because he’s been fast everywhere for over a month.
Kurt Busch won this race last season which could lead us to believe his former teammate Brad Keselowski might do well in the Penske set-up, despite not owning a top-10 finish at Dover in five career Cup starts.
In addition to looking at June’s race and other past races in Dover history, I also like to take into account what happened at Bristol, as well as a small dose of what happened on the high banked 1.5-mile tracks. Dover is a one-mile concrete oval with 24 degrees of banking, kind of a tweener between Bristol and, say, Charlotte. We’ll see several crew chiefs use cars with similar set-ups from those tracks at Dover this week, that is, if they ran well on the others.
Because the track is so unique, it’s not uncommon to see the driver that had it all figured it the first time around, win again. Jimmie Johnson has swept Dover twice already in his career. Ryan Newman did it in 2003, Tony Stewart in 2000, Gordon in 1996, Rusty Wallace in 1994 and, well, you get the picture.
Johnson is also using the same chassis he used to win at Dover June, which also won at the Brickyard and finished runner-up two weeks ago at Chicago.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)
2) #17 Matt Kenseth (10/1)
3) #55 Mark Martin (20//1)
4) #24 Jeff Gordon (12/1)
5) #2 Brad Keselowski (10/1)