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AAA 400 Preview: Taming the Monster

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

The Chase for the Sprint Cup championship continues this weekend at Dover International Speedway. The Monster Mile is the perfect setup for the third race of the Chase. We've visited an intermediate oval and a short track to this point in the 10-race playoff. Now it's time to race at oval that fits somewhere in between. This one-mile bowl races like a short track, but it also has the high speeds and ability to pass like the larger tracks. With the parity among manufacturers at this oval we expect to see a wild shoot out this weekend. Whoever can show up with the best race car on Sunday will likely have a decent shot at winning the AAA 400. Roush Fenway Racing teams have had their fair share of success at Dover in over the years, so this event will be great news for Chase participants Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. The duo has combined for three wins in the 2012 season so they can pull the upset this weekend. Biffle and Kenseth have also combined for four Dover victories in their career, so if there's a track for either driver to turn their dimming Chase hopes around, the Monster Mile is the one. The races at Dover International Speedway are usually anything but dull. Most are led by a number of drivers, and are usually very competitive. The parity that we currently have at this track is a good indicator of the entertainment factor associated with this race. In recent years, we have seldom seen one driver run away and dominate at DIS. The schedule presents a very appropriate race and a challenge for the drivers in the third race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

The Monster Mile is quite unique in configuration. It's comparable to Bristol Motor Speedway, but much larger. The concrete surface that was placed in 1995 made it the first concrete oval that NASCAR competed on. Little has changed since then. With this in mind it will be really useful to take a look at the loop stats for this one-mile oval. For this race we will place a great deal of emphasis on the recent history of Dover International Speedway. The configuration and concrete surface here really appeals to a select group of drivers, and they'll be easily identifiable from the numbers below. Here are the loop stats for the last 15 races at Dover.

Jimmie Johnson6.43008401,8805,170120.6
Matt Kenseth9.14393766875,146110.5
Carl Edwards7.94294865324,382104.8
Greg Biffle9.14454194634,902104.2
Kyle Busch14.33752374484,375101.6
Mark Martin9.53423121184,45996.9
Kurt Busch16.63482274053,94295.4
Aric Almirola6.0341031694.8
Jeff Gordon14.64081961744,27691.1
Ryan Newman13.73071032404,14890.4
Clint Bowyer13.5309145333,57189.7
Jeff Burton9.6383178633,93989.1
Martin Truex Jr.16.43082022253,26788.5
Kevin Harvick15.729997113,37282.0
Denny Hamlin20.526340632,52178.6
Kasey Kahne20.5254223522,83878.2
Jamie McMurray19.5228901312,28178.1
Dale Earnhardt Jr.19.522215532,33977.6
Marcos Ambrose18.01437101,13676.3
Brad Keselowski17.09227284476.1

Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge and Toyota have each won in the last five races at DIS. This manufacturer parity makes prognostication at this oval a bit difficult. This season's race in June at the Monster Mile bears close examination. The Hendrick duo Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson battled over the course of the 400 laps, but in the end Johnson ran away to take the victory. It was his seventh career win at the facility and second in the last four races at the Monster Mile. Considering how close the five-time champion is to winning entering the Chase for the Cup, he should be looking forward to 400 laps at Dover this weekend. The only teams to give the Gordon-Johnson duo any competition that day were Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mat Kenseth. The trio only led a combined 3 laps, but was nipping at the heels of Johnson and Gordon the entire event. Before you get the sense that these two stars will return to Dover this weekend and pick up right where he left off in June, we must first realize how difficult it is to win at Dover. With the chase for the championship now squarely in play, don't rule out any surprise performances in the AAA 400. With Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski seemingly having the momentum entering this weekend, there's sure to be some wild action at Dover International Speedway on Sunday afternoon.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson is atop the Chase for the Cup standings as we roll into Dover this weekend. It's funny how the No. 48 team always seems to step up their performance when it's championship time. After a runner-up finish at Loudon this past weekend, the Hendrick Motorsports star has his work cut out for him to stay atop the leader board. Johnson is the active wins leader at the Monster Mile with seven, including four of the last seven events at the track. The five-time Sprint Cup Series champion has led 653 laps in his last three trips to the Delaware oval. That's over 54 percent of the laps run at the Monster Mile over this span. That makes Johnson the top contender for this event.

Brad Keselowski -
This Penske Racing driver has elevated his game from obscurity to stardom over the last year. Keselowski is seen racing with the leaders almost every week and certainly a threat to win anywhere the Sprint Cup Series travels. In his five career starts at Dover International Speedway, he's not finished better than 12th-place and that came in this June's FedEx 400. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited the Monster Mile was well before Keselowski caught fire this summer. So he should have no trouble improving on his June finish at this oval. In fact, we expect him to be among the leaders.

Matt Kenseth -
The no-mistake contender this weekend is the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford team. Kenseth has been anything but consistent in the later half of this season, but his Dover excellence is impossible to ignore. The Monster Mile presents the perfect opportunity for this veteran driver to pick up a victory in the Chase. Kenseth enters this event with Top 5s in eight of his last nine starts at DIS, including a brilliant victory in 2011's FedEx 400. You can't argue with results and this driver has them at this high-banked oval.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin has had the best form of his season the last month. After wins at Bristol, Chicago and Loudon the last five races he comes to Dover the hottest driver in the series. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has never really racked up the success or hardware at the Monster Mile that his JGR teammate Kyle Busch has, but don't let that deter you from deploying him this Sunday. Hamlin finished fourth- and ninth-place at this one-mile oval in his 2010 championship contending season. Considering how hot the No. 11 Toyota team is right now, Hamlin should lead laps and compete for the win in the AAA 400.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Jeff Gordon -
The No. 24 team brings some great momentum to Dover this weekend, after Gordon's big Top 5 at Loudon. Gordon is racing with a purpose this season, and that is despite his rough start to the Chase. While Dover International Speedway hasn't been one of his best tracks in the later stages of his career, Gordon has the mettle to post a great finish in the AAA 400. The Hendrick Motorsports star is a four-time winner at the Monster Mile, and he's a Top 10 finisher in nearly 54 percent of his starts at this oval. No doubt, Gordon will be racing with the leaders on Sunday afternoon.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star is trying hard to keep his morale up after engine problems at Loudon this past weekend. Busch should be very happy to visit one of his favorite ovals this weekend at Dover. The No. 18 Toyota team has posted a pair of victories and nine Top-10 finishes in 15 starts at the Monster Mile. That works out to a stellar 60 percent Top 10 rate for the Joe Gibbs Racing star at this concrete oval. Four of his last five trips to Dover International Speedway have netted Top-10 finishes, so we're very optimistic that Busch will rebound in this weekend's AAA 400.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick is a great fantasy play this weekend. Most race fans aren't aware that the No. 29 team's driver is pretty solid at Dover. We can't forget some of the great finishes that Harvick has posted over the years at DIS. Harvick has 10 career Top-10 finishes at the Monster Mile and four of those have come in his last five starts at the high-banked oval. In June's FedEx 400, Harvick parlayed a good sixth-place starting spot on the grid to a runner-up finish. It was one of the RCR driver's best performances of the season. He may not measure up to that standard this weekend, but Harvick will surely be competing around the Top 10.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer has been heating up the last few weeks, and he rides a three-race Top 10 streak into this weekend's event. The Michael Waltrip Racing star has six career Top-10 finishes at Dover International Speedway, and he rides a three-race Top 10 streak at the Monster Mile into Sunday's AAA 400. Bowyer qualified fourth and finished fifth in the Dover mixing bowl in June, so the team has the setup nailed. The No. 33 team has been giving Bowyer great cars of late, so another Top-10 finish should be in store for this weekend's 400-mile brawl with the Monster.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Dover who can provide a solid finish

Carl Edwards -
The focus towards 2013 begins with having a good finish to 2012 for Edwards and the No. 99 team. The Roush Fenway Racing star is looking to continue improving at one of his favorite tracks this Sunday. We expect Edwards to have his best on display this Sunday. He owns one victory and 11 Top-10 finishes in 16 career starts at the Monster Mile and he's led over 500 laps at the facility. Considering how good Edwards has been at this one-mile oval, it would be a shock to see him racing anywhere but up front at Dover.

Greg Biffle -
This pick could blow up in our face this week, but we're determined to make it anyway. The No. 16 Ford team has been slumping of late. However, Dover has been a good venue for BIffle over the years. The Roush Fenway Racing veteran owns two victories and 10 Top-10 finishes in 20 career starts at the Monster Mile. That 50 percent Top 10 rate is pretty respectable. Still, three of Biffle's last four trips to Dover have not measured up to his standards at this facility. We're placing our bets that the veteran driver rebounds this Sunday afternoon.

Mark Martin -
Martin's good season with Michael Waltrip Racing should continue in Sunday's AAA 400. The veteran driver has a staggering 52 career starts at Dover International Speedway. Martin has amassed some impressive numbers over 30 years of racing at this facility. He is a four-time winner at the Monster Mile, and he's collected a mind-boggling 31 Top-10 finishes at the high-banked oval over the years. In this spring's FedEx 400, Martin won the pole, led 43 laps and finished a respectable 14th-place. He's capable of much more in Sunday's 400-lap melee at the Monster Mile.

Joey Logano -
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver recently shook off some poor performance with seventh- and eighth-place finishes at Chicago and Loudon to start the Chase. Logano is sharpening his skills going into the stretch run of this season and his new gig at Penske Racing in 2013. He has decent career numbers at Dover International Speedway with three Top 10s in seven starts. Logano raced to a solid eighth-place finish in June's FedEx 400. We expect the No. 20 Toyota team will have extensive notes from that performance, and Logano will put them to good use in the AAA 400.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The No. 56 Michael Waltrip Racing team may be a low odds contender for the championship, but that won't stop Truex from posting some great finishes in the Chase for the Cup races. He won at this Delaware oval in 2007 for former team Dale Earnhardt Inc. and he's won two of the last five pole positions at the concrete oval. Truex, a New Jersey native, has always considered the Dover events a home-coming of sorts so he looks forward to racing here. His pair of Top-10 finishes in his last three trips to the Monster Mile is a good measure of what to expect this Sunday afternoon.

Jeff Burton -
Burton has been somewhat insignificant this season from a fantasy racing standpoint. He enters this event ranked 19th in the standings with five Top-10 finishes on the season. Burton has shown some signs of life the last few races. The No. 31 team has given him decent cars and the veteran driver has responded with one Top-10 and three Top-15 finishes in the last four events. Burton is a one-time Dover winner, and his last three trips to DIS have yielded a pair of 11th-place and a 22nd-place finish. The venue and the timing are right for Burton to post a steady Top 15.

Marcos Ambrose -
If you're looking for a low-profile driver that loves racing on high bank ovals, then Ambrose is you man this week. The driver of the No. 9 Ford has been a good finisher at both Bristol and Dover's high banks during his Sprint Cup Series career. Ambrose rides a three-race Dover Top 10 streak into this weekend's event, and he recently raced to a stellar fifth-place finish at Bristol a few weeks ago. The team is coming off a disappointing 24th-place finish at Loudon, so there will be extra motivation for Ambrose at the Monster Mile this weekend.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Tony Stewart -
It was difficult putting Smoke in the flops list this week. After starting the Chase with sixth- and seventh-place finishes at Chicago and Loudon, it's a gamble to lay off the No. 20 team this week. However, the odds will be against to a degree in Sunday's AAA 400. The Monster Mile hasn't been kind to the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet in recent appearances. Stewart has no finishes inside the Top 20 in his last four trips to the Delaware oval. Even though he's a two-time Dover winner, keeping Stewart on the bench is the conservative and probably smart play this Sunday.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
Montoya has certainly had his struggles this season. After he hit that jet dryer at Daytona it's been downhill ever since. The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet enters this event ranked 21st in the driver point standings with only two Top-10 finishes in 2012. Things don't look very promising to turn the corner on Sunday at Dover. The veteran driver has always had struggles at this one-mile oval. Montoya's last five trips to the Monster Mile have yielded only one Top-20 finish and one DNF. That average finish of 26.2 falls short of fantasy racing worthy.

Jamie McMurray -
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing is poised to have a long weekend at the Monster Mile. Not only is Montoya a poor play, but McMurray and the No. 1 team are ones to avoid as well. He hasn't cracked the Top 20 in the last four races so the veteran driver is struggling somewhat entering this event. McMurray posted all five of his Dover Top 10s in the first half of his Sprint Cup Series career. In his last eight trips to Dover International Speedway he's failed to crack the Top 10. We expect this team's mediocrity to continue at DIS this weekend.

Aric Almirola -
Almirola had a good start to this season, but he's limping into the stretch run. The RPM driver has only one Top 20 in his last five races, and things are looking pretty dismal in the No. 43 camp. Almirola had a great finish at Dover in June with a brilliant sixth-place finish. However, we don't believe he can recapture lightning in a bottle this time around. The lack of momentum in this team is very unsettling entering the Chase. Almirola hasn't visited the Top 15 since that great run at Dover in June. Odds are that he won't get back on track in Sunday's AAA 400.
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