Thrilling Dover race shows NASCAR needs a changing of the guard – The News Journal
Martin Truex Jr. will be back in Dover this weekend defending his Sprint Cup Citizen Soldier 400 title. Race fans will see a triple-header of races and might be seeing Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the last time in a NASCAR race as he will retire after the season.
DOVER – The dilemma facing NASCAR, including Dover International Speedway, was on full display Sunday.
The day began with an 80th birthday bash for Richard Petty, replete with a replica cake of his No. 43 car that he drove during his illustrious career. It was made by Cake Boss winner Dana Herbert, who lives in nearby Bear.
There was also perhaps a wistful moment for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who announced that he will be retiring after the season, which means that he’ll make one last trip to Dover for the fall race.
And then there was NASCAR future in Kyle Larson, the dynamic driver who has 26 top-five finishes in his five seasons in NASCAR’s top series, but only two victories. Larson was on pace for his third victory, leading 241 laps Sunday in the AAA 400 Drive for Autism at Dover International Speedway.
He had more than a 2-second lead over Jimmie Johnson with 4 laps to go, when the caution flag came out, forcing overtime laps. Johnson stormed to the lead and won on Lap 406 just before a massive wreck.
It was Johnson’s 83rd career win, tying Cale Yarborough for sixth place in NASCAR history.
“I mean, Jimmie is the best of our time, probably the best of all time,” Larson said. “He just has obviously a lot more experience than I do out on the front row late in races, and executed a lot better than I did.”
Johnson always does, it seems. He started in last place because of a penalty. It didn’t matter. He was in the top five by Lap 120, and seemingly biding his time until the end. Johnson won for the 11th time in Dover, the most of any other driver.
It was then suggested that maybe Johnson should start the next Dover race 20 miles away while riding a bicycle.
“You put that rabbit out in front of me and I’ll chase it down,” Johnson said. “It’s just the way I’ve always been.”
The problem is that once again, the future of NASCAR is still stuck behind the established veterans. And there desperately needs to be a changing of the guard. After all, some of the sport’s most popular drivers have retired in the past few years, such as Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, and Tony Stewart.
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There are new drivers coming up, but many are still looking to make their mark, such as Larson.
“It’s just disappointing,” Larson said. “I run second all the time. All the time. A lot of them, I’m leading coming down to 3 [laps] to go, like today. We just gotta get better on the restarts.”
And all of this is happening in the context of dwindling television ratings and attendance.
NASCAR has tried tweaking the races to make them more appealing to young fans. So there are “stages” during the races with breaks after 120 and 240 laps, awarding points to the winners of those stages.
But NASCAR also knows that it can’t forget the links to past greats like Petty, who drove in the first race at Dover Downs back in 1969.
“It’s just completely different,” Petty said during his birthday celebration Sunday morning. “Some of it is better. Some of it isn’t… It’s just a different environment.”
Do the young drivers see that?
As for Dover, there are questions, too. NASCAR recently announced its 2018 schedule and the June race will move to May 4-5, when the chances for the race to be held under brilliant blue skies with 80-degree weather, like it was Sunday, are certainly riskier.
The race will also be held the same weekend as the annual “Dover Days,” which generally draws more than 2,500 participants for the parade and more than 6,000 spectators.
“We have to make it work, and we will make it work,” said Michael Tatoian, the president of Dover International Speedway. “Our preference would be for the dates to stay where they have been. The first weekend in May certainly wasn’t our preference. But it is what it is, and we’ll turn that into a positive.”
The Speedway doesn’t have much of a choice. Besides, it was able to keep its fall weekend during the 10-race Chase for the championship. The difference is the fall race was an elimination race for the first round. Next year, it’ll be the first race of the second round.
Tatoian said that’s not an issue, as long as Dover is included as part of the playoffs.
He said what really matters is the action on the track. The means the young drivers like Larson, Chase Elliott (fifth), Daniel Suarez (sixth), and even Ross Chastain, who made his MENS Cup debut Sunday and finished 20th, have to fill the void left by those retiring.
Chastain, incidentally, was sponsored by the Delaware Office of Highway Safety, whose message is “buckle up.”
That also applies to the sport, and to Dover.
“The product on the track is what drives the sport,” Tatoian said. “If the product continues to improve, then as long as we have good weather, we’ll be all right.”
Contact Martin Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.