NASCAR Crash Course: Will Dover be the springboard for Hendrick Motorsports again?

In 2021 at Dover Motor Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports finished 1-2-3-4 for the first time in company history. Alex Bowman led the final 98 laps and HMS led 382 of 400, sparking a six-race win streak that propelled them into the role of NASCAR Cup Series title favorites.

Will Monday’s repeat light a fire under the program again?

Chase Elliott’s win at the rain-delayed 2022 Drydene 400 was a lot harder to come by, the result of a Dover track revitalized by the sport’s Next Gen chassis. There were 10 leaders and 17 lead changes, tying the most at this track in the last five years. The 13 sureties were nearly double the total of any race held here since Jimmie Johnson won his final NASCAR event in 2017.

In between, the day was filled with constant plot twists: pit strategy, tire conservation and surprise crashes that created a level of comers-and-goers you just don’t see at Dover. A new tire combination paired with a different type of car led to as many as three grooves at a one-mile oval that often fails to produce more than one.

“Seemed like [the tire] had an impact on how the cars drove,” Elliott said after the race, a sentiment echoed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the sidelines. “We had a little bit of room to move around, not a ton. It did promote some movement there later into a run.”

Add in a limited number of tire sets for each team and early cautions had crew chiefs playing chicken to see how long their Goodyears would last. In some cases, like this Tyler Reddick crash, teams got bit by conserving sets for later on in the race. Other drivers like Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell worked their way back from spins or unscheduled green-flag stops.

But it also promoted movement throughout the field, often Dover’s Achilles’ Heel in years past; you could go 50 laps into a run here without a single top-10 position changing hands. Competitive racing is an encouraging sign for a track recently purchased by Speedway Motorsports, Inc. after being chopped from two dates to one on the yearly Cup schedule.

Looks like the locals responded to the new car.

“Great crowd we had yesterday,” Elliott mentioned. “Biggest crowd I have seen here personally since I’ve been racing [in 2011]which I thought was really cool.”

Hendrick has to be encouraged as well. Last year’s winner Bowman was fighting for the lead with Kyle Busch until a caution in the middle of green-flag stops caught them both a lap down. It opened the door for Elliott, the current Cup point leader but the lone winless Hendrick driver through the season’s first 10 races.

“I had a better feeling,” Elliott said about this race. “I still felt like there was going to be a caution [after he got out front].”

There wasn’t. NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver cruised ahead of a surprising Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to leave HMS’ four drivers essentially locked into the 16-driver playoff with four months left in the regular season.

“As we go into the summer, we know how hectic that can get,” said HMS General Manager Jeff Andrews. “All kinds of circumstances that can present themselves. So very pleased with where we’re at right now.”

And if last year is any indication? HMS is nowhere close to reaching their peak.

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Green: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Hard to be mad at a runner-up finish when you haven’t cracked the top 5 in over a year, right? Stenhouse has had such a bad start to the year that Brad Keselowski, despite a 100-point penalty, was still in front of the JTG Daugherty Racing driver in the standings. “Feels good,” Stenhouse said after the race, although a win would have put him right into the playoffs. “Hopefully, we can carry this momentum on.”

Yellow: Chris Buescher — Earning the first pole of Buescher’s Cup career (233 starts) was a huge step for a Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing program reeling from penalties and subpar performances. An eighth-place finish was Buescher’s best on a track one mile or less in length since Bristol nearly two years ago. But wins, not eighth, is what’s needed for a team that will likely need them from both of their two teams to make the postseason. “We want more,” Buescher said. “I am not content… but it is a strong run for us.”

Red: Team Penske — What is going on in Penske land? Rookie Austin Cindric was the first driver to wreck; he’s without a top-5 finish since winning the season-opening Daytona 500. Joey Logano crashed soon after, his second straight run outside the top 25. And Ryan Blaney slumped to 26th after winning a stage, just the second time all year he’s finished off the lead lap.

Speeding Ticket: Next Gen Tires — Add Denny Hamlin and AJ Allmendinger’s crew chiefs to the list of those facing four-race suspensions after both cars had wheels come off during the Dover race.

There’s a reason why the consequences are so severe; we’re lucky no one’s gotten seriously hurt after a car has crashed on the track with just three wheels. But this issue, enveloping over half-a-dozen teams at this point, has been happening since the season-opening Daytona 500. NASCAR said then they were looking into fixing the problem. Why is it still happening at a frenzied pace?

Oops!

Ross Chastain’s aggressive driving got him into trouble after some last-lap jostling for third position left him making contact with Martin Truex Jr. His block on the backstretch wound up sending Truex into the inside wall on the final lap.

The two wound up exchanging words on pit road before Truex stormed off.

“We were talking about where we’re going fishing next week,” joked Chastain before deflecting. It’s the latest in a series of moves for Chastain that have earned him victories (see: AJ Allmendinger at Circuit of the Americas) but also have him racking up enemies as the year presses on.

“I know how Ross [Chastain] races,” fifth-place finisher Bowman said. “I am sure he was just battling hard.”

Months from now, at a short track playoff race like Bristol or Martinsville, “racing hard” could come back to bite him.

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