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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 NASCAR Sprint Cup 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, since this race seldom ever comes down to pit strategy or fuel mileage. Hendrick Motorsports teams and Chevrolet have had their fair share of success at Dover in over the years, so this event will be great news for Chase participants Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. The duo has combined for 11 wins at the Monster Mile over their career, so they have the resume to succeed in the AAA 400. Both are still very much in the running for the championship, so you know they'll be racing hard in this 400-mile battle. 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 Sprint Cup Series schedule presents a very appropriate race and a challenge for the drivers in the third race in the Chase for the 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 17 races at Dover.

Jimmie Johnson6.93469232,0665,862119.6
Matt Kenseth12.44494097165,429107.3
Kyle Busch13.34323639005,174105.6
Carl Edwards8.14694875324,912102.9
Greg Biffle9.94644324635,109101.4
Mark Martin9.14033311185,21497.3
Kurt Busch16.73932674134,26593.6
Jeff Gordon13.24582351755,01692.7
Clint Bowyer12.7353169344,29391.1
Martin Truex Jr.17.13472362273,88689.9
Ryan Newman15.53381082404,49288.4
Jeff Burton10.7389198633,97686.4
Brad Keselowski13.014256181,64385.3
Kevin Harvick15.1348108124,00983.1
Denny Hamlin20.52991011433,29882.4
Kasey Kahne20.3315293543,54380.2
Dale Earnhardt Jr.18.527615933,02078.7
A.J. Allmendinger22.62211271521,81377.6
Jamie McMurray20.62771031312,66677.5
Aric Almirola14.33610034476.7

Chevrolet, Ford, and Dodge (now gone) have each won in the last five races at DIS. This manufacturer parity makes prognostication at this oval a bit difficult. The bad news is that Toyota has only two career wins at the high-banked oval and the last coming via Kyle Busch in 2010. This season's race in June at the Monster Mile bears close examination. The Hendrick star Jimmie Johnson and Joe Gibbs star Kyle Busch battled over the course of the 400 laps, but in the end it was Tony Stewart tracking down a surprising Juan Pablo Montoya in the final laps to capture the victory. It was his third career win at the facility and only victory of the season. Considering that Stewart is sidelined for the rest of the year with the broken leg, he won't be able to defend his June crown at Dover this weekend. However, we expect Mr. Johnson and Mr. Busch to be quite relevant in the AAA 400. 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 mustn't forget our championship standings leader Matt Kenseth. He's on a roll to start the Chase with wins the last two weeks at Chicago and Loudon. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota is also a two-time winner at Dover International Speedway. Kenseth's engine failure and DNF here in June has surely left the veteran driver feeling like he has unfinished business this weekend. We'll examine the Dover historical stats, and we'll take a good look at the current trends to give you the lineup of drivers you need to dominate the high banks of the Monster Mile this Sunday afternoon.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Matt Kenseth -
The heavyweight contender this weekend is the No. 20 Joe Gibbs racing Toyota team. Kenseth has been stellar to start the Chase, winning the first two events, and to add to that his Dover excellence is impossible to ignore. The Monster Mile presents the perfect opportunity for this veteran driver to pick up yet another victory in the Chase for the Cup. Kenseth owns two career victories at the one-mile oval and he's led 775 laps on the concrete high banks. You can't argue with results and this driver has them at Dover International Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson is looking to make up ground in 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 Top-5 finishes at both Chicago and Loudon to start the Chase, the Hendrick Motorsports star is poised to up his game a notch this Sunday afternoon. Johnson is the active wins leader at the Monster Mile with seven, including four of the last nine events at the track. The five-time Sprint Cup Series champion has led 475 laps in his last three trips to the Delaware oval. That's almost 40 percent of the laps run at the Monster Mile over this span. That makes Johnson a top contender for this event.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star is trying hard to keep up with his teammate and standings leader Kenseth after finishing runner-up to him in the first two races of the Chase. 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 11 Top-10 finishes in 17 starts at the Monster Mile. That works out to a stellar 65 percent Top 10 rate at this concrete oval. Busch's last two trips to Dover International Speedway have netted seventh- and fourth-place finishes along with 452 laps led, so we're very optimistic that Busch will be very strong in this weekend's AAA 400.

Jeff Gordon -
The No. 24 team comes to the Dover oval looking for momentum this weekend, after Gordon's subpar Top 15 at Loudon. Gordon is racing with a purpose this Chase season and that is despite his bump in the road this past weekend. 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 56 percent of his starts at this oval. Gordon's last two trips to DIS have netted second- and third-place finishes so he's been painfully close to victory lane in recent visits.

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

Brad Keselowski -
This Penske Racing driver has elevated his game in the last several races. It wasn't enough to make the Chase, but he's been racing with a purpose in recent weeks. Keselowski is seen racing with the leaders almost every week and certainly a threat to return to victory lane at some point in the near future. In his last two trips to the Delaware oval, the driver of the No. 2 Ford has collected one victory and two Top-5 finishes. He's the defending event champion coming into Sunday's AAA 400, and he will certainly race like it from all indications.

Carl Edwards -
The focus on the championship should reach a very narrow beam this weekend in the No. 99 Ford camp. The Roush Fenway Racing star is looking to continue his pursuit of that elusive championship at one of his favorite tracks this Sunday afternoon. We expect Edwards to have his best on display this Sunday. The recent victory at Richmond showed the potential of this driver and team. He owns one victory and 12 Top-10 finishes in 18 career starts at the Monster Mile and he's led well 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.

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 11 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 seventh-place starting spot on the grid to an eighth-place finish. It was a typical Monster Mile performance for this veteran driver. He should be racing with the leaders once again in Sunday's AAA 400.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer has been nothing short of flawless in recent trips to the high-banked concrete oval. The Michael Waltrip Racing star has eight career Top-10 finishes at Dover International Speedway, and he rides a strong five-race Top 10 streak at the Monster Mile into Sunday's AAA 400. Bowyer qualified 15th and finished sixth- in the Dover mixing bowl in June, so the team has the setup nailed. The No. 15 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

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, but the Top 5 at New Hampshire this past week grabbed our attention immediately. 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 22 career starts at the Monster Mile. That 46 percent Top 10 rate is pretty respectable. Biffle recently finished ninth at the high banks of Bristol, so we have good vibes coming to Delaware this weekend. Considering that the veteran driver comes to the AAA 400 riding fifth in the Chase standings, Biffle has a lot on the line this Sunday afternoon and we should see it result in his racing at the Monster Mile.

Mark Martin -
Martin's up-and-down season should swing to the upside in Sunday's AAA 400. The veteran driver has a staggering 54 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 33 Top-10 finishes at the high-banked oval over the years. In this summer's FedEx 400, Martin qualified sixth and finished a respectable ninth-place. He's capable of a repeat performance in Tony Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet during Sunday's 400-lap melee at the Monster Mile.

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing driver recently shook off some poor performance with a Top-15 finish at Loudon to continue his Chase for the Cup. Logano is sharpening his skills going into the stretch run of this season to improve his position in the standings and underscore a successful first season with Roger Penske. He has strong career numbers at Dover International Speedway with five Top 10s in nine starts. Logano raced to a solid seventh-place finish in June's FedEx 400. We expect the No. 22 Ford team will have extensive notes from that performance, and Logano will put them to good use in the AAA 400.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The last few weeks have been a bumpy ride for the No. 56 Michael Waltrip Racing team. However, Truex has soldiered through as he demonstrated with a strong performance at Loudon this past week. He won at this Delaware oval in 2007 for former team Dale Earnhardt Inc. and he's won two career 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.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The rookie driver had a bump in his recent uptick of performance this past week at New Hampshire. Stenhouse had claimed his first two Top 10s of the season at Richmond and Chicago before his 24th-place belly flop at Loudon. However, we think the young Roush Fenway Racing driver will rebound this week given the venue. The Monster Mile hasn't been too hard on this rookie. Stenhouse owns 12th- and 13th-place finishes in his only career starts at the concrete mixing bowl. The No. 17 team and this young driver are quickly adapting to Cup racing, and the results should show in the AAA 400.

Jeff Burton -
Burton has been somewhat insignificant this season from a fantasy racing standpoint. He enters this event ranked 20th in the standings with six 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 two Top-10 and four Top-15 finishes in the last six events. Burton is a one-time Dover winner, and his last five trips to DIS have yielded three 11th-place finishes, including this June's FedEx 400. The venue and the timing are right for Burton to post another 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 six-race Dover Top 20 streak into this weekend's event, and he recently raced to a strong eighth-place finish at Bristol a few weeks ago. The team is coming off a decent Top-20 performance at Loudon, so there will be some momentum for Ambrose at the Monster Mile this weekend.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin had his best performance in the last couple months with his 12th-place finish at Loudon this past weekend, but it still fell well short of what we usually expect for the No. 11 Toyota team at one of his better ovals. While improvement is coming painfully slow for the JGR star, we have to continue marking him as an “avoid” candidate. Considering the track we visit this weekend, it's warranted. Hamlin has a lowly 33 percent career Top 10 rate at the Monster Mile, and despite winning the pole position in the last two Dover races, his finishes have not followed. His crash and 34th-place finish in June's FedEx 400 doesn't fill us with confidence.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
Montoya has certainly had his struggles this season. After news that he was headed back to IRL in 2014, the veteran driver had a July-August hot streak of four Top 10s in a six race span. However, things have cooled considerably for the No. 42 team as we entered September. Despite Montoya's flirtation with victory lane here in June, we have to downgrade the driver for the AAA 400. Montoya's career numbers show three Top-10 finishes in 13 starts at the Monster Mile and a 21.9 average finish. That's probably about where he'll end up in Sunday's 400-lap brawl.

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 two visits to Dover International Speedway. McMurray posted all five of his Dover Top 10s in the first half of his Sprint Cup Series career. In his last 10 trips to the Monster Mile he's failed to crack the Top 10. Despite a recent uptick in performance for the No. 1 Chevrolet team, we expect this driver and team's mediocrity at the Dover oval to continue this weekend.

Ryan Newman -
Newman has a lot on the line this weekend with his Chase for the Cup expectations. The veteran SHR driver comes to Dover International Speedway ninth in the championship standings and looking to get a good finish to keep his slim championship hopes alive. Newman's recent Dover resume is nothing short of complete mess. After posting three victories and 11 Top 10s earlier in his career at the high-banked oval, his recent trips have been very disappointing. Newman has only one Top-15 finish in his last five Dover outings, and he crashed and finished a miserable 36th here in June. The chips look stacked against the No. 39 team this Sunday afternoon.