Ryan: Three thoughts on the FedEx 400 at Dover


1 – Clean air still king: Even at a high-banked 1-mile oval where tire wear is critical and aerodynamics are less of a factor, maintaining position again was more important than fresh rubber when it mattered most Sunday. Under caution with 20 laps remaining and only 11 cars on the lead lap, it seemed a no-brainer that everyone would pit – and then it seemed a forgeone conclusion that severe misfortune awaited the two drivers who didn’t. But despite tires with 50 more laps of wear, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick still finished 1-2. In becoming a 10-time winner at the concrete oval, Johnson easily withstood challenges from Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. (who led a race-high 131 lap) on the final three restarts. It’s been an ongoing theme this season that the leader has a virtually insurmountable edge when at the point, even when under siege by a seemingly much faster opponent (witness Harvick being unable to seize first from Denny Hamlin in the All-Star Race two weeks ago). But while this isn’t a stunning development at 1.5-mile tracks such as Charlotte Motor Speedway, it’s a disconcerting development at Dover, where fresh tires usually have made a decided difference in speed. In the wake of NASCAR meeting with several drivers Saturday night to discuss the next season’s direction and how to improve competition, this has become a prominent concern and should be the primary focus of building the 2016 rules package. Truex noted his car “wasn’t right” all day but could stay in front just by virtue of better handling from avoiding traffic. Aerodynamics and downforce are necessary evils of auto racing, but it’s imperative the Gen 6 becomes more adaptive in traffic.

2 – Crumbling down: Dover International Speedway has reinvested in the property with several capital improvements in recent years, replacing the catchfence for this season, adding SAFER barriers and widening and lengthening its pits. Now it might be time to work on a surface that is two decades old. For the third consecutive NASCAR weekend, the track faced problems with loose concrete. A year ago, a large chunk stopped the June race after heavily damaging Jamie McMurray’s Chevrolet. Another patch was needed last September between the Xfinity and Sprint Cup races. On Sunday, it was a pothole in Tony Stewart’s pit that had crew members and track workers scrambling to remove several pieces of concrete. While Dover should be commended for its commitment to keeping up with the times (removing the Turn 2 grandstands and adding medical amenities for fans also were good moves), it’s becoming clear that its concrete needs attention, if not a complete makeover. While the repaving of asphalt tracks around the tracks have been regarded as a scourge that has contributed to high-speed, single-groove racing, concrete is an entirely different story. NASCAR can’t afford another major interruption when the circuit returns to Dover in September with a Chase for the Sprint Cup elimination race. What will happen if a title contender desperately seeking a victory to advance to the second round is undermined by inferior infrastructure?

3 – Dover dumps Denny … again: Pole-sitter Denny Hamlin went to a sports psychologist three years ago for help in how to approach Dover, where he admittedly wasn’t on top of his game. He might be primed for a repeat visit after Sunday’s race. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver started on pole and led a career-best 118 laps on the 1-mile oval with a No. 11 Toyota that often seemed the class of the field in the race’s first half. But he barely was a factor after getting shuffled into traffic, and when he finally climbed into the top five for a restart with 16 laps remaining, he was punted into the wall by Clint Bowyer. Hamlin actually seems to be improving at Dover even if his results aren’t – he has qualified first in three of the past seven races there but yet has an average finish of 20th when starting on the pole.