The Grand Prix Of Dover

It’s hardly a coincidence that the historic Grand Prix of Monaco (reputed to be the wealthiest principality in the world) is held on the same day as the Dover Winston Cup race. Dover is after all the Monaco of the Eastern Seaboard, a tiny little jewel surrounded by airbases, soybean fields and discount liquor stores. In Dover the rich and famous rub elbows with moderately meaned and inconspicuous, along with a smattering of folks who’d have to get a second job to qualify for white trash status. But they stand elbow to elbow in Dover Down’s slot machine casino pumping their pocket change into one armed bandits while breathing deeply of the now smoke-free air thanks to a bill signed by Delaware babe of Governor, Ruth Ann Minner. When the lure of quick riches diminishes gamblers can head off to any one of a number of Dover’s fine eateries like the Denny’s on the Dupont Highway. Or they can join the parade of motorists who all seem to somehow believe that leaning on the horn while sitting in monumental traffic at the base of the Delaware Turnpike will somehow make the cars ahead of them move faster. NASCAR fans who are developing webbed feet chasing the circuit as of late got to enjoy Friday, the second sunny day in the month of May at Dover. And for those shopping aficionados the state of Delaware has no sales tax, only taxing traffic that could drive Mother Teresa to curse like a stevedore. (Route 202 is often referred to as America’s Autobahn in that both highways are used by automobiles.)

Under forbidding skies the folks at Dover did manage to stage a fairly interesting little race on Sunday. Ryan Newman has been enduring a sophomore season from Hell this year, routinely qualifying on the pole on Friday only to experience some sort of problem on Sunday that ruined his chances. After four straight finishes of 38th or worse Newman has managed to put together a pair of back to back top 5s. That’s allowed him to move from 25th to sixteenth in the points standings. But Sunday’s race was not without drama for Newman who had a power steering failure at a track notoriously tough on drivers. (If I recall correctly Dover is the first track where power steering was used in the modern era when Bobby Allison used it to win this race in 1982.)

Jeff Gordon finished second after giving Newman all he could handle on the final restart. Unfortunately Gordon once again gave Sterling Marlin a little more than he could handle for the second time in three weeks, knocking into the 40 car and putting it into the wall. At Charlotte Gordon and his crew chief were invited to the Big Red Truck to discuss the contact that wrecked Marlin. And after Dover perhaps NASCAR will invite Gordon for another sit down in which they’ll warn him, “You do that again next week and we’ll warn you again.”

Bobby Labonte has been the hottest driver on the Winston Cup circuit as of late finishing either second or third in the last five Cup points races and third in the Winston. Labonte advanced another two spots in the standings Sunday and is now in fourth place only 42 markers behind Jeff Gordon.

Tony Stewart’s results as of late had been as bad as his teammate Labonte’s were good. With the exception of a solid sixth place finish at Martinsville Stewart had endured finishes of 25th or worse in six of the last seven races during a streak that included 40th, 41st and 41st place finishes in the last three points races. But Stewart has never finished worse than 11th at Dover and he had a solid shot at a win Sunday hampered by a penalty for pitting outside his box. (Some say the track management at Dover should have been penalized for a too narrow pit road instead.) But Stewart rebounded nicely with a third place finish.

Johnny Benson scored his first top 10 finish of the 2003 season at Dover Sunday. (He’d been close before with 13th, 12th and 11th place finishes scored in the first four races of this season.) More importantly a good solid run arrest Benson’s free fall in the points that saw him stumble from sixth in the standings after Atlanta to 29th leaving California.

Rusty Wallace scored his fifth straight points race finish of twelfth or better on Sunday. It’s become evident that Wallace is growing frustrated as his winless drought now stretches to 75 races. While he qualified on the outside pole Wallace ran his teammate Ryan Newman hard to take the lead on the first lap. Maybe Rusty thought that with rain in the area NASCAR would call the race official after one lap?

Matt Kenseth retained the points lead for the ninth consecutive week. To date this season Kenseth has scored top 10 finishes in eleven of thirteen points races. It’s tough to beat that sort of consistency.

Ricky Craven seems to have gotten Dover figured out. He’s the only driver to have scored top 10 finishes in each of the last three Dover Cup events. Craven currently finds himself just 24 points outside the top 10.

It didn’t appear that Robby Gordon was even going to be able to start Sunday’s race. Prior to the green flag Gordon was forced to the pits with some sort of mysterious miss in the engine. Even once the car was back under way under it’s own power Gordon was narrowly able to avoid the first lap crash in a nifty bit of driving. To finish ninth after that sort of start to the day is a pretty credible achievement.

Terry Labonte scored his second top 10 of the 2003 season Sunday and his first at a non- plate track. Many fans might have noticed because for what seems to be about the eighth time this year Labonte ran a “one-race” paint scheme to celebrate something or the other that really didn’t need celebrating at a stock car race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. wrecked his primary car in the final practice session, damaged his backup car in the first lap wreck and still managed to salvage an eleventh place finish. Because he led a lap (during a pit sequence by staying on track) he managed to minimize the damage he suffered in the points losing only three markers despite finishing four spots behind Kenseth.

Several drivers won’t fondly recall their trips to Dover this weekend. Jimmie Johnson who pulled the rare Dover sweep last year and had won two races coming into this weekend wrecked hard while running up front. Dale Jarrett was running in the top 10 when his engine expired. Considering Kenny Wallace’s problems at Charlotte and Ward Burton’s at Dover, one can only hope the rumors are true Bill Davis Racing is helping Toyota develop their NASCAR engine program.

Stately Matt Manor Redux sits about forty miles northwest of Dover and about four decades ahead in development. Within fifteen minutes of the race’s conclusion the sun finally broke through the clouds leading alarmed residents in these parts to shield their eyes and point upwards at the unfamiliar burning orange ball in the sky even as the Winston Cup haulers began their long journey south to Mooresville. For fans who traveled to my neck of the woods for the weekend, I offer my apologies. Dover is proof positive that there’s no town so miserable it couldn’t be worse in the rain. And for those headed from far-flung points to the Pocono Mountains next weekend, rest assured that rain is the forecast for both days next weekend as NASCAR’s Mechanized Drought Cessation Tour slogs onward.



Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2003

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