By Brian Smith
In the mid-1990s, Jeff Gordon was a hotshot young driver who was in the process of winning three championships in four seasons, while finishing second in the one year of that stretch he didn’t win the title. He was also consistently winning pole positions and races at Dover International Speedway, where he became a darling of the First State as the driver representing what was, and perhaps still is, Delaware’s best-known employer – DuPont.
That run included a sweep of both races during a 1996 season where he won 10 races and narrowly missed out on a second consecutive title, and it was so long ago that the championship he lost was the Winston Cup. The guy he lost the championship to was Terry Labonte, and all those Dover races he was winning were 500 miles long. Not a single driver that Gordon beat in the September 1996 race was in the Sunday, Sept. 28 “AAA 400” NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – some of them were at the track, but they were there either as team owners or television broadcasters.
So it makes it that much more remarkable that Gordon, now 43 and 13 years removed from both his last championship and his last win at Dover, is solidly in the running for the former and just won again at the latter. For the fifth time in his career but the first time since 2001, Gordon took the checkered flag at the Monster Mile, beating Brad Keselowski to the line by a comfortable 4.35 seconds. And believe it or not, Gordon now gets to take home a Miles the Monster trophy for the first time – all his previous wins came before the now-iconic trophy was introduced.
“He found the fountain of youth somewhere,” said a relieved Rick Hendrick after the race. “I can remember back when he was winning 10 or 12 races a year, he didn’t get out of the car and jump on the roof and have as much fun in victory lane as he is right now. He’s really enjoying himself.”
Gordon, indeed overjoyed upon exiting the car, laughed when told of his boss’s sentiments.
“I don’t know what I found, but I think a lot of it has to do with Alan Gustafson and all the guys on this 24 team,” he said. “I think this is huge. We came in here with a little bit of extra pressure because we weren’t guaranteed to be in after where we were at New Hampshire last week. It was about making a statement, and I don’t know how you make a bigger statement than the one this team just made.”
Gordon had a strong car all week through practices and he qualified fourth, so it was not a surprise to see him at the front of the field. But for more than half the race, it looked like it was going to be Kevin Harvick who had the car to beat. Harvick took the pole position and led the field during Saturday’s Happy Hour, and all was going fine for him as he led 223 of the first 248 laps of the race – even as he reported what he thought was a bad left front shock.
However, if anyone knows the importance of luck in finishing a race, it’s Harvick. And for the second consecutive Dover race, Harvick didn’t have any. On lap 248, Harvick’s left front tire went down and he started dragging his front splitter around the race track. Although the team simply replaced the tire and sent Harvick back out, the splitter damage ruined the dominance he had enjoyed so far in the race, and he ended up finishing 13th. The culprit ended up being a damaged valve stem in the left front tire – the exact same problem that took him out of the lead when it happened to his right front tire during the June race.
However, the misfortune ended up not costing Harvick anything in the long run. He was comfortably sitting third in the points race and didn’t have any other major disasters. It really was still Harvick’s best race ever at Dover – he’d previously led 133 laps in September 2003, but in the 21 races since then, he’d led a total of 36 laps, the most of which was the 24 he led back in June before the valve stem came off.
When Harvick went by the wayside, Keselowski took the lead with Gordon running second. Gordon briefly dropped into third before rebounding to pass Keselowski for the lead on lap 306, and he didn’t relinquish it the rest of the way.
The subplot to the race was the implications in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship, as it was the first “knockout race” under NASCAR’s new championship format. The field of 16 Chasers knew it would be over for four of them following the race, and those cars jockeyed back and forth for position throughout the afternoon. When it was over, the four left on the outside looking in were A.J. Allmendinger, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Aric Almirola.
The last driver to stay alive in the Chase was Kasey Kahne, and he needed a remarkable comeback to do so. After running in the top 10 in the early part of the race, Kahne struggled with an ill-handling race car after possibly leaving the pits with a loose wheel, and had to make two out-of-sequence pit stops. He was four laps down at one point and would have been mired hopelessly at the bottom of the scoring pylon had the race gone yellow at the wrong time, but he got a fortuitous break when most of the leading cars took green-flag stops right before Harvick’s tire mishap. When the field settled down after that caution, Kahne was only one lap down, and he just drove it back from there.
“His car was so good,” Hendrick said. “He was up to sixth or seventh and he felt something, and it was a loose wheel. When he had to pit under green, I thought we were done. It worked out, and I thought we were OK, and then we were even or one point out. I’d really written it off halfway through the race, thinking we weren’t going to get the break to get back in it.”
It could have been the most significant 20th-place finish in NASCAR history – it was good enough for Kahne to advance, and with the points resetting heading into next week’s race at Kansas and the second round of the elimination format, he’s right back with the rest of the pack.
After Gordon and Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson finished third, Joey Logano fourth and Matt Kenseth fifth. Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Kyle Busch rounded out the top 10.
The race was a clean and fast one – in fact, it was just the fourth race ever at Dover to average more than 130 mph, coming in with an average speed of 130.542 mph, just a smidge slower than last September’s version. There were only five cautions required for 23 laps, and the race took just over three hours to complete.