Dover Can Be A Monster

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DOVER, Del. – Dale Jarrett’s pole-winning speed was 154.919 mph. But Dover Downs International Speedway, site of Sunday’s MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400, can feel a lot faster.

Sure, it’s only a mile in length, making it the fourth-smallest track on the NASCAR Winston Cup schedule. But there’s something about the track, maybe its 24 degrees of banking or its concrete surface, that makes it feel as if you’re driving an NHRA Funny Car.

“It’s tough race track,” said Bobby Labonte, who starts second in Sunday’s race. “It’s fast. The sensation of speed is high. It’s real exciting.”

It’s darn near too exciting.

“Ricky Rudd and I were talking this morning about just how fast you feel like you’re running around here,” Jarrett said. “It literally feels like you’re going 300 miles an hour because you’re off in the corner so fast, and you pick the throttle up and feel like you’re hauling the mail coming out of the corner.

“It’s a fun track to drive and I enjoy racing here, but the qualifying lap is really pretty exciting. You’re glad when you’re through with it and everything works out good.”

Of course, race speeds will be slower, but there's still plenty of excitement. And danger lurks around every corner. That could be bad news for Winston Cup points leader, who carries a 222-point lead on Rudd into Sunday’s 400-lap race.

If Gordon has another problem like he had at Richmond – where he crashed early in the race and finished 36th – then Rudd and Jarrett can make another big gain.

“Anything can happen at any of these races,” Jarrett said. “We know Jeff had a great car at Richmond, but something happened there and anything can happen.

“What we have to do is to put our cars up front and make them run hard. If you make them try to run a little harder, then mistakes can happen. Whether it’s adding more timing than they need to to try to keep up with our engines or whatever it is that we can make them do to put pressure on them, that’s what we’ve got to do.”

Jarrett and Rudd have already put some pressure on Gordon, and the race hasn’t even started. Jarrett starts first and picked the preferred pit stall, while Rudd qualified fourth. Gordon, meanwhile, has struggled this weekend. He qualified only 23rd, and was 13th fastest in Saturday morning’s practice.

“We’re ready for the challenge,” Gordon said. “We’ve got a great team. This team is on their game the best I’ve ever seen. We’re going to deal with whatever challenges are thrown at us.”

And you can believe Rudd and Jarrett are going to throw everything they have.

“It is important to be able to run the race that you want to run,” Jarrett said. “Things happen so quickly here, and you’re running so fast with the banking on the straightaways, if something happens coming off the corner you get collected in that whether you were ever a part of it at the beginning or not. So it’s nice to be up there to where you can kind of do the things you want to do and run the race you want to run.

“Pit selection is very important, but that track position is important too. I know it’s happened where guys have come from the back because it is such a long race and you have time to do that, but it’s a lot more fun to race from up front and run the race you want to – to be able to adjust the car and get that pit selection. That makes a world of difference whenever you make your pit stops and getting in and out of the pits.”

Only one driver has started outside the Top 10 and won here in the last 10 races, and that was last year when Tony Stewart rallied from 27th to win. That’s the farthest back any driver has ever won here.

Of course, all is not lost is you qualify poorly. At least that’s what Johnny Benson wants us to believe. Benson practiced 14th Friday but had trouble during qualifying and needed a provisional. He starts 37th but believes he can get up front.

“If you’ve got a good race car, you’ll be in good shape,” Benson said. “You’ve just got to make sure you don’t get caught up in anything and then you’ve got to make some early progress. You’ve got to be patient, but you can’t go a lap down. You’ve just got to be careful at the beginning and let the track groove widen out. Then as the race gets going, try to work your way up to the front.”

That’s easier said than done, of course.

“Yeah, it’s tough. You’re sitting in traffic and (the leader) is sitting in open air,” Benson said. “You’ve just got to hope that he is off a little bit at the start of the race and isn’t lapping the field right away.”

Sunday’s race is the first Winston Cup event since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Drivers will have plenty on their minds Sunday before the race.

“We’re going to see a lot of emotion, especially when that national anthem is played,” Gordon said. “That in itself can take your focus off.”

Jarrett has gone so far as to suggest more time be allowed after the anthem so the divers can collect their thoughts.

“I can assure you there’s probably not gonna be a dry eye around here,” Jarrett said. “We need to make sure that we’re taking that time and taking it for what it is all about. All of us have a totally different perspective on our lives now that this has happened, and we just need a little bit of time between that to really understand and think again about what it’s all about.

“We take too many things for granted and because we’ve been so fortunate to live in the great nation that we do, these things have come so easy to us. Now let’s get back to where we understand why we play the national anthem and listen to the words about what it’s all about. I hope that we can have that little bit of time.”

Even if they don’t get it, the drivers know what’s important.

“When I put that helmet on and start that engine up, it’s impossible for me not to be focused,” Gordon said. “You don’t have a choice.

“It’s going to be difficult at times. Sometimes, some of the best medicine for things we’re going through as drivers is to get behind the wheel of that race car.”

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