Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DOVER, DE – Historically speaking, when Martin Truex Jr. is “on,” he is ON. And his dominating showcase at Darlington Raceway last week in South Carolina – leading 248 of 293 laps – is indicative of the kind of run this Joe Gibbs Racing driver can have again this week.
Sunday’s venue for the Drydene 400 (2 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – the famed Dover (Del.) International Speedway one-miler – isn’t just a place the New Jersey native Truex considers a “home track” but a venue where he has really taken it to the competition.
With the track’s all-time winningest driver Jimmie Johnson (11 victories) no longer competing, the remaining best at Dover in the NASCAR Cup Series include Truex, Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch – all with three previous victories. Among those, Truex has put on a show sure to thrill his ‘home crowd’.
Truex, the driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, has finished first or second in the last four Dover races – winning in Spring, 2019 and finishing runner-up the last three events at the track. He has finished fourth or better in eight of the last nine races and three times during that span he has led at least 100 laps.
In 14 of Truex’s 30 career NASCAR Cup Series wins, he has led at least 100 laps. Four times – including last weekend – he has led at least 200 laps. And twice he’s led nearly 400 laps in a single race- 392 of 400 laps in winning at Charlotte in 2016 and 464 of 500 laps in winning at Martinsville, Va. in 2019. When he’s good, he’s really good and Dover is that kind of place for the hometown favorite.
“Just ever since I went there the first time, it’s a place I really enjoyed going to,” Truex said. “It’s a unique track where you can use a lot of past history and I think for me, when I go there, I don’t really worry a whole lot about how fast we are or exactly what the set-up is or things like that.
“I really just kind of go by the feel of the car and know what I’m looking for. That’s really a key for a lot of places, is once you figure it out, if you can duplicate that feel or those certain tendencies your car has to do well and you can carry that through the years and we’ve been able to do that there.
“Hopefully, we’ll get it feeling the way I like this weekend and get up there and try to win another won.”
Truex’s work at Darlington last week and the raised expectations for him at Dover this week are indicative of not just the season he’s having but also say a lot about the season championship points leader Denny Hamlin is having.
The win on Sunday was a series best third for Truex and yet he still trails his JGR teammate Hamlin by 75 points in the championship standings
Hamlin still has essentially twice as many top-five finishes (nine) as anyone else in the field (Kyle Larson has five). Hamlin has five finishes of third or better. He’s led laps in 11 of the season’s 12 races – in back-to-back weeks, leading more than 200 laps in a race (at Martinsville, Va. and Richmond, Va.). And he’s been ranked No. 1 in the standings for the last 11 weeks. … except that he is still winless on the season.
Hamlin, who earned his only Dover victory in the first of two races last year at Dover, has finished seventh or better in four of the last six races at the Monster Mile. And he’s led 333 laps in just the last three races there.
Ironically, Truex and Hamlin know their greatest competition may likely come from within the team ranks. JGR driver Kyle Busch boasts not only three previous victories, but an admirable 62.5 percent ability to finish top-10 (20 times in 32 Dover starts). Thirteen of those are top-five finishes. He has four runner-up finishes, including his first two career races there in 2005. He was third and 11th in the two Dover races in 2020.
Busch, driver of the No. 18 JGR Toyota, secured his first win of 2021 two weeks ago at Kansas and answered with a third place at Darlington last Sunday.
Former series champion Kevin Harvick joins Hamlin as a preseason title favorite, but surprisingly is still looking for his first trophy hoist of the year. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has an impressive nine top-10 finishes – including a season best runner-up to Kyle Busch at Kansas.
Harvick has been particularly good at Dover, a part of that three-win club. With a hefty 3.525-second win over Truex and the field in the series last race at Dover last summer, he certainly brings confidence to the track. His worst finish in the last six Dover races is sixth and that includes two wins. He’s led at least 200 laps three times in that span. His 1,666 career laps led at Dover is nearly 500 laps more than the next highest total.
A winning Sunday afternoon for Harvick could be exactly what the team needs, but it won’t be easy.
“Ever since the very first day that we’ve gone to Dover at Stewart-Haas Racing, it’s been a good race track for us and we’ve run well,” Harvick said. “Dover is just one of those grind-it-out type of races. The harder you can drive it and the more aggressive that you can be, lap after lap after lap, by being more aggressive and consistent, you can grind a lot of them into the ground there just because 400 laps around Dover, staying focused and being able to grind away with your race car that hard for that long, is tough mentally and physically.”
NASCAR XFINITY SERIES GOES TO DOVER
It may have taken Justin Allgaier a couple races to get going this season, but the veteran is going and going fast. Last week’s Darlington (S.C.) Raceway winner is the only NASCAR Xfinity Series championship-eligible driver to have ever won on this week’s equally-notoriously tough track, the one-mile Dover (Del.) International Speedway. And he’s done so twice.
Allgaier will line up from pole position for Saturday’s Drydene 200 (1:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and is one of four drivers not only racing for a win but competing for a $100,000 bonus as part of the Xfinity Dash 4 Cash program.
Noah Gragson, whose bonus-winning fourth-place finish at Darlington was disqualified post-race Saturday then reinstated this Wednesday on appeal, is eligible for the money again this weekend. Josh Berry and Brandon Jones join Allgaier and Gragson. Three of them – Allgaier, Gragson and Berry – are JR Motorsports teammates. Jones drives for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Allgaier earned his second career Dover victory in the first part of a doubleheader weekend last August at the track, finishing 1.977-seconds ahead of eventual series champion Austin Cindric and leading 120 of the 200 laps.
Allgaier and Cindric are the only two two-time race winners in 2021. And they show up Saturday as the race favorites. Allgaier has had eight top-five finishes in the last 10 races there – including a six-race streak from 2017-2020 when he finished no worse than third at the Dover mile. The driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet has been runner-up three times, boasts an average finish of 9.7 and led 334 of his career 353 laps led at Dover in just the last six races.
Historically, Allgaier has a tendency to go on winning runs. In 2018, he won twice in a four-race stretch and then three times in a five-race stretch later in the season. Last year he won three times in a five-race late summer stretch. His victory last weekend was his second in a three-race window.
“Dover has been a really good place for us these last couple of years and I can’t wait to get back there with this BRANDT Professional Agriculture Chevrolet,” Allgaier said. “Hopefully we can unload with the same speed that helped us get to Victory Lane last summer here and that we can come home with that $100,000 Dash 4 Chase prize from Xfinity. I’m really looking forward to seeing what we can do.”
Cindric’s showing at Dover last year – a runner-up and third-place finish – was indicative of a good weekend and what he is also capable of at the track. He’s finished no worse than ninth in six career starts and has finished third or better in his last three races there.
The driver of the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford is looking to reclaim his early season hot streak. After opening the year with five straight top five runs, he has only a pair of top-10 finishes in the last four races. It’s still good enough to keep the 22-year-old 39 points ahead of second place Daniel Hemric in the series driver standings.
Gragson, who will be going for his fourth consecutive Dash 4 Cash bonus check, has historically counted Dover as a good venue. The 22-year old has four top-10 finishes in five starts there. He was fourth in the first race of the Dover doubleheader in 2020 – leading 27 laps – and sixth in the second race.
No doubt having won the appeal this week and shown himself a factor in the race, Gragson is hopeful Dover will be a turning point in a frustrating 2021 run. He has three DNFs coupled with four top-10 finishes. His best showing is a runner-up finish at Martinsville, Va. and he has finished sixth or better in three of the last four races.