Gander Outdoors 400 – Dover International Speedway

Dover International Speedway is known as the Monster Mile for the way it chews up tires, angers drivers, and causes massive pileups that take out lead cars. Thus, everytime the NASCAR Cup Series races at Dover, there’s always the question of “who will tame the monster?”, and visiting the track for a playoff race is no different. The answer to that question for the Gander Outdoors 400 was quite unexpected given the way the race played out.

Green Flag

Before the green flag dropped, Jimmie Johnson, an 11-time winner at Dover, experienced an issue with the front suspension during pace laps and immediately had to go to the garage to make repairs. The team fixed what they discovered to be a lower ball joint failure and sent Johnson back onto the track. He returned to the race 10 laps down and went on to finish in the 36th position. The poor result did not affect Johnson’s championship hopes as he was already eliminated from the playoffs after a controversial finish at the Charlotte ROVAL the week prior.

While Jimmie Johnson was in the garage, the green flag flew and kicked off the first race in the round of 12. Qualifying had been rained out on Friday afternoon so drivers lined up based on owner points, placing Kyle Busch and his #18 Toyota in P1. Within 12 laps, Busch conceded that Kevin Harvick’s #4 Ford was a much faster car and he moved up the track to allow the #4 to pass. Harvick pulled away to 7+-second lead and began lapping the field, eventually putting 14 cars down a lap. Busch, however, began dropping back even further as he detected major issues with a rear tire and pitted early to solve the problem. Harvick also pitted midway through the stage, but even green-flag pitstops couldn’t stop his dominance as he cycled back to the lead and won the first stage which was caution-free.

In between Stage 1 and 2, lead lap cars came down pit road for 4 fresh tires and fuel. The only penalty during the stops came for the #9 of Chase Elliott who had an uncontrolled tire issue. The penalty forced Elliott to start at the tail end of the field in 38th position. As Stage 2 commenced, Kyle Busch reported major issues with his trackbar.

Kyle Busch moves up the track to allow Harvick to pass

Normally, drivers can adjust the trackbar from inside the cockpit and can read the level adjustments via a digital display on the dashboard. In Busch’s case; the digital read suddenly failed so he was at a loss to know whether his adjustments were working. Crew chief Adam Stevens made the connection between the earlier tire issue (in which the rubber had unraveled in a long, continuous strip) and the track bar, believing the stringy rubber had wrapped itself around the track bar and had caused the new issue.  Since Busch was not able to adjust the track bar, he couldn’t improve the car’s handling and slowly but surely he fell out of the top 10. Meanwhile, Harvick continued to lead and won Stage 2, his 14th stage win of the season.

Midway through the final stage, it seemed the race was a foregone conclusion considering Harvick was still leading and lapping an outrageous number of cars, and the remainder of the field was so widely spread that passing opportunities were minimal.  But then… all hell broke loose.

Harvick came down pit road for his final scheduled stop of the day and suddenly suffered a broken valve stem and had to come back to pit road for repairs. Harvick was forced to surrender the lead to his teammate Aric Almirola, who proved to be just as dominant as the #4 and picked up where Harvick had left off.

With 71 laps remaining, the caution flag waved for debris on the track, which happened to be the axle of Ross Chastain‘s #15 Camaro. Right behind him, the #22 Ford of Joey Logano hit the axle and he sustained body damage to the right side of his car. On the restart, Almirola was able to hold onto P1 and grew his lead to 1.8-seconds over his Stewart-Hass teammates, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer.  With only 15 laps remaining, Bowyer felt a tire going down and headed to pit road without triggering a caution. Ironically, however, just 6 laps later, the right-front tire on Bowyer’s #14 Ford blew and sent him straight into the outside SAFER wall which did bring out the yellow flag. The decision to pit under caution was mixed among the field, with 6 drivers opting to stay out on old tires. Chase Elliott, who had patiently battled his way back from the earlier tire violation, and Denny Hamlin made up the front row on old tires, while Almirola (the first car among those that had pitted) was now back in the 4th row.

Heading into Turn 2 on the restart, Almirola got tight and smacked the wall. His #10  Smithfield Ford bounced off the wall and shot downwards into the right-rear quarter panel of Brad Keselowski. This triggered a wreck that collected Martin Truex Jr, Alex Bowman, and Ryan Blaney, all of whom are in the playoffs and trying to make it to the next round. The red flag was displayed for cleanup and the race went into overtime.

Chase Elliott is congratulated by teammate Jimmie Johnson

Elliott and Hamlin remained on the first row and took the green flag for the 2-lap overtime shootout. Elliott once again aced the restart on old tires and pulled away to an unexpected win.

This was Elliott’s second win of the season and automatically locks the #9 team into the next round of the playoffs.

Catch the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Talladega next weekend for a thrilling restrictor plate playoff race. Get your tickets HERE
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