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NASCAR Crash Course: Can the Next Gen car fix Dover's 'Monster Mile'?

 Hunter Martin, Getty
When NASCAR rolled out its Next Gen chassis earlier this month, the sport's Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O'Donnell was asked when exactly fans should gauge how well the new car works.

"I think everyone will want to judge it after the Daytona 500," O'Donnell joked. "That's the nature of our business."

I disagree. After a weekend of mediocrity at Dover International Speedway, the true benchmark for the Next Gen car in 2022 should be next year's race at the "Monster Mile."

When NASCAR's popularity peaked 15 years ago, Dover was a true test of man and machine. One small mistake would eat up your car and spit it out down the high banks, disaster lurking around every turn. That unpredictability led to packed stands, year in and year out. NASCAR's Mid-Atlantic mainstay was the hottest ticket in town for 150,000 fans, a race where a six-hour delay in leaving was not uncommon. As a Philadelphia native, I lived it all, sitting idle on the highway after working the television broadcast or writing.

Those days are long gone now, along with the can't miss competition. Cup races at Dover have gone accident free as recently as the fall of 2019. Only two cars failed to finish this past Sunday.  

What happened? The track fell victim to modern engineering, the dreaded aero push keeping cars running side by side. Add in some poor tire combinations from Goodyear, and it left everyone stuck in place here a few laps after a restart. Leaders have been pulling away in record numbers. The average margin of victory in the last five Dover races is 3+ seconds.

Track conditions mean Alex Bowman knew he won Sunday's race with 97 laps remaining. That's when his crew beat Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson off pit road. Once the No. 88 Chevrolet cleared the competition on those final few restarts, he was unstoppable. That cars from just one organization wound up 1-2-3-4 was the icing on the sheet of a dried-up cake.

"Clean air was tough today," Bowman said afterwards, a follow-the-leader phrase that's English for fans turning their television off. "Tougher than previous races here."

NASCAR and track ownership know there's a problem with the racing at Dover. It's why a two-race track lost a date on the schedule for the first time in 51 years. Fans responded with a limited capacity sellout this year, but will they return in 2022 after what they saw?

To get two dates back long-term, the Next Gen car needs to clear the high bar set here, achieving the goals O'Donnell laid out at the beginning of May.

"It'll be our job to work with the industry and make sure … to deliver the best racing possible," he said. "Make sure that we keep it within the bounds of allowing as many teams to go out there and compete for wins."

At Dover, they're pretty much starting from scratch. The last hope for Miles the Monster to survive may be a little Next Gen magic.
Traffic Report

Green: Hendrick Motorsports. Can you believe that 1-2-3-4 finish is the first ever for Hendrick since expanding to four cars in 2002? Two-time winner Bowman is on the verge of a contract extension, Larson leads Cup with 774 laps led and William Byron has 11 straight top-10 finishes -- a NASCAR record for a driver age 23 or younger. And we haven't even mentioned the reigning Cup champion, Chase Elliott, capable of catching fire at any time.   

Yellow: Bubba Wallace. An 11th-place finish was the best yet for Michael Jordan's 23XI Racing, slowly building a baseline with Wallace. The problem? Well, 11th place isn't going to win you trophies anytime soon. It feels like Wallace is going to need a first career victory to make this year's postseason grid.

Red: Aric Almirola. Speaking of must-win territory to make the playoffs, we're there with Almirola after his fiery wreck left him last at Dover. For a driver who prides himself on consistency, five DNFs sit one short of his career high -- and we still have 23 races left to go.  

Speeding Ticket: COVID-19. At the same time the CDC lifted mask restrictions across the country, NASCAR's had a few missteps in its ranks. Driver Justin Haley was pulled from the Dover weekend due to COVID protocols, resulting in Josh Berry's Cup debut, while Brad Keselowski's crew chief Jeremy Bullins has missed two straight weeks.

We'll leave this one as a tribute to Texas Motor Speedway's Eddie Gossage, the legendary NASCAR promoter retiring after this year's All-Star Race at the track. Gossage was a part of the sport's legendary decision to contest this race under the lights at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1992. What resulted was a finish that will live in the NASCAR record books forever.

So what's the problem? In a press conference showcasing those lights a month before the race, Gossage allowed track owner Bruton Smith to pull the switch. But something went wrong, and as the lights went on a firework lodged in Smith's hair, setting it on fire.

It's the risk racing promoters take in trying to put on a show, right? Wishing Gossage all the best in his upcoming retirement.


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