The Nextel Cup is already a third of the way done. In an era when we expect parity to be at the forefront based on the last couple of years, the start of the 2004 NASCAR season is anything but that.
At this point last season, there were 11 different drivers with wins. Only Kurt Busch had multiple victories. Turn the page to this season and it’s entirely different. Four drivers have multiple wins with Dale Earnhardt Jr. leading the way with three. Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, and Jeff Gordon all have two while Elliott Sadler, Rusty Wallace, and Busch each own one.
The notables missing from victory celebrations this season are Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, and Ryan Newman. In Newman’s case, his drought is somewhat of a surprise. He led the series in wins (8) last season, but hasn’t been able to get in the groove yet. However, he did start slow last season, having only one win at Texas and not getting another until race 13 at Dover Downs.
Dover again is the sight of race 13 and Newman remains a good candidate to win.
Newman swept the pair of Dover races last season, making him the fifth driver since 1994 to accomplish that feat. The first four are Johnson, Stewart, Gordon, and Wallace.
No driver has ever won the ensuing race coming off a season sweep. Wallace, the only driver to win three consecutive Dover races, won the fall Dover event in 1993, then came back to sweep in 1994.
The "Monster Mile" has been a tough track for some, but the one-mile concrete oval continues to be a welcome sight for several drivers. Through the years, several drivers routinely do well at Dover. When considering all the season sweeps by drivers throughout the tracks history, there becomes no reason to believe that a newcomer crash the party.
True, the last four races there have been won by newcomers Johnson and Newman, but all will agree they are special breeds destined for championships. Drivers that win at Dover over the last decade are generally within the top two or three in season points when the race takes place. During that span, Jeff Gordon has won four times at Dover.
Mark Martin, forever the bridesmaid in points, won three straight fall races during his prime. Based purely on Dover’s past history, a driver not on a roll rarely wins. Currently, there is no hotter driver than Jimmie Johnson.
The display Johnson put on at Charlotte last week was the most dominant non-plate oval race I have ever seen. He made his peers look silly, putting them down lap after lap.
Johnson has the perfect criteria of a driver on a roll that is ready to sleigh the "Monster Mile." He currently sits five points behind Junior in the standings and leads the series with eight top 5 finishes in his 12 starts.
Here’s a look at how some of the other current hot drivers have done at Dover:
Dale Earnhardt Jr (9-1): Points leader. Since his only Dover win in 2001, Junior has been on a downward spiral at Dover in the last four races. His best performance was 11th with the other three finishes 24th or worse. To his credit, he has led multiple laps in the last 3 Dover races.
Jimmie Johnson (9/2): Second in points. After sweeping the season during his rookie year, Johnson settled in last year with average performances. He was involved in an accident in this race last year and followed up with an eighth in the fall. This is third consecutive year he has dominated at Charlotte. Each ensuing Dover race, he has been strong. Just prior to his wreck last year in this race, he had led 35 laps.
Matt Kenseth (10-1): Third in points. No Dover wins, but three consecutive top 10’s. Has been the pole sitter in two of the last 4 races there. There may be an opportunity in qualifying matchups against other really bad qualifiers.
Jeff Gordon (8-1): Fourth in points: Has two straight top 5’s at Dover, but coming off one of his worst career performances. Things will likely be right again for Gordon, the all-time money winner at that track.
Tony Stewart (7-1): Fifth in points: Finished fourth and third at Dover last year and has two career wins there. Look for another strong performance this year.
Books hit by pole
The Indy 500 and Coca Cola 600 decisions were not good for Vegas books.
When the pole sitter wins any car race, it usually isn’t good for the books.
When it happens in two of the biggest races of the season that are racing on the same day, it’s double jeopardy. That’s what happened when Buddy Rice and Jimmie Johnson won their respective races from the pole.
Several books reported losses in both the odds to win and matchup categories.
Rice opened 20-1 and closed at 8-1, while Johnson opened as the 7-1 favorite and closed 9-2.
The top qualifier always gets bet heavily, but rarely do they win in the big races.
The Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 are said to both be placed in top 10 for motor sports handle, trailing such major NASCAR events as the Daytona 500, the Las Vegas Cup weekend, and the Brickyard 400 at Indy.