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NASCAR picks pack: No driver has tamed the Monster Mile better than Johnson

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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WHEN: Sept. 30, 2012 | GREEN: Approximately 2:15 p.m. ET

WHERE: Dover International Speedway

TRACK DESCRIPTION: 1-mile high-banked oval

BROADCAST: ESPN | RACE LENGTH: 400 laps, 400 miles

The lowdown
Dover is deceptive. It is a one-mile, high-banked track with a monstrous reputation, but through the years several drivers have tamed it. A horse racing track in the infield of the Monster Mile forced the designers to make the straightaways narrow and treacherous with walls close to the racing surface and more than one track-blocking accident has occurred in recent memory. However, racers who are skilled enough to spend most of their time at the front of the pack dodge those obstacles with regularity.

In recent weeks, reporting on streaks has been increasingly rare because of NASCAR’s parity rules. But that will not be the case for Dover’s top-10. Five drivers enter the weekend with current three-race top-10 streaks and several have five-, six-, or even seven-race streaks lurking in the past six years.

Like New Hampshire last week, Dover has also been kind to Chase contenders. During much of the history of the playoff-style format, these two tracks occupied the first and second weeks on the calendar and both of them have exclusively been claimed by a driver competing for the Sprint Cup. Shifting them down the schedule slightly has not made a difference. In nine races now, New Hampshire remains perfect and Dover is eight-for-eight in regard to wins among Chasers. Chicagoland has also been perfect in that regard in two previous Chase races and the smart money says that the trend will continue.

For all their success on this track, however, Chase contenders have never swept the top five in the fall race. They have come close many times with four top-fives earned the first two seasons of this format (2004/2005) and during the last four consecutive years. This week’s most dramatic story once the checkered flag waves may not be about the winner, but rather which of the non-Chasers came close to breaking up their domination.
10 best drivers at Dover

Over the past six races at Dover, these drivers have the best average finish.

1. Jimmie Johnson
Last six races average finish at Dover: 5.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Dover: 8.86 in 21 attempts

Last week, Johnson said he was happy with a second-place finish because he had a second-place car. Setting aside for the moment that a championship race car driver has never been happy with second and Johnson’s statement did not ring true, it is extremely likely that he will not have to settle again this week. Johnson has been great at Dover during his career and has not let up one bit in recent campaigns. He swept Victory Lane in his rookie season and has a total of seven wins to his credit. Four of those came in his last seven attempts and two of those triumphs kicked off championship bids.

2. Matt Kenseth
Last six races average finish at Dover: 5.50 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Dover: 11.81 in 27 attempts

For the sake of consistency, the NASCAR Picks Pack looks at a rolling three years for each track profiled. For venues hosting two races per season, that equates to six races, but in order to show just how close the battle between Kenseth and Johnson has been at Dover, that parameter needs to be expanded. In the last nine races on this track dating back to 2008, both drivers have an identical average finish of 4.78. Johnson has more victories, but Kenseth has been much more consistent with eight top-fives in that span and he is going to be one of the challengers for this week’s win.

3. Kevin Harvick
Last six races average finish at Dover: 9.33 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Dover: 16.00 in 23 attempts

Harvick, Kenseth and Greg Biffle are the only three Chase drivers who have failed to crack the top 10 in the first two playoff races, but the No. 29 came close in each of the last two weeks. That team finished 12th at Chicagoland and 11th at New Hampshire, which may be more frustrating than the drivers who experienced trouble and fell well off the pace. Harvick should reverse his fortune this week because four of his last five Dover races have ended in top-10s and he has a perfect top-15 streak in his last six attempts there. Top fives are fairly rare and he has only three in his 23-race career, but one of those came this spring when he finished in the runner-up spot behind Johnson.

4. Carl Edwards
Last six races average finish at Dover: 10.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Dover: 8.50 in 16 attempts

Dover will be Edwards’ Rubicon. If he fails to run well this weekend, the road to recovery for this team is going to be extremely long and filled with numerous pot holes. He entered the FedEx 400 with an 11-race streak of results 11th or better. He picked his way through the field from a mid-pack qualification effort and was closing in on Kyle Busch for fourth when he crashed a little way short of the halfway point. His 26th-place finish was the worst of his career and the first time he had ever finished worse than 18th at Dover. Of the five non-Chasers profiled among the 10 best this week, he is statistically the one with the best odds of finishing among the top five.

5. Mark Martin
Last six races average finish at Dover: 10.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Dover: 12.46 in 52 attempts

Refreshed from one week out of the car, Martin is going to be one of this week’s top drivers. So far in 2012, every time Brian Vickers has run strong in the No. 55, Martin has backed that up with an equally impressive run and when Vickers had engine trouble at Watkins Glen, Martin struggled the following week with the same malady. Vickers finished 15th in the first New Hampshire race; Martin was 11th at Indy. A fourth by the Young Gun in the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol was followed by a 10th at Atlanta for the veteran and last week’s solid ninth in the Sylvania 300 can only be good news for the Michael Waltrip Racing team. Martin is no slouch at Dover. In his last six races there, he finished second twice, but those are his only top 10s in that span.

5. Jeff Burton
Last six races average finish at Dover: 10.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Dover: 15.41 in 34 attempts

Burton has one of the most remarkable Dover statistics in the past four seasons. In 2008, he finished the spring and fall events within one position of one another by earning an eighth in June and a ninth in September. That is not all that odd as drivers regularly show consistency on a track. But for the next three years, he finished in precisely the same spot during each spring and fall race. He posted a pair of 16ths in 2009, two runner-up finishes in 2010, and was 11th in both races last year. If he finished 22nd this week like he did in the FedEx 400, fans are going to have to rethink their attitude toward the inevitability of Fate.

7. Kurt Busch
Last six races average finish at Dover: 11.17 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Dover: 18.17 in 24 attempts

There are two reasons Busch could be a surprise contender this week. First, Dover is a driver’s track where skill is a bigger part of the equation than on the unrestricted, intermediate speedways. Secondly, Busch and the No. 78 team announced this week they signed a one-year contract for 2013 and that takes some of the pressure off the driver’s shoulders. Busch is prone to overdriving when his car is not competitive and he has torn up a lot of equipment this year. Dover’s walls are unforgiving and that could be a recipe for disaster. But Busch is also one of the best in the field at riding the ragged edge when he does not lose his concentration. He could be this week’s consummate high-risk, high-reward racer.

8. Jeff Gordon
Last six races average finish at Dover: 11.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Dover: 12.26 in 39 attempts

Gordon owes his position among the top 10 this week to consistency and not much else. In his latest six races, he has scored only one top 10 at Dover and that was a sixth in the fall 2009 race. Since then, he has come close with 11th-place finishes in the next two events -- a 12th in this race last year, and a 13th in the FedEx 400 earlier this season. He will need a much better result to keep his playoff hopes alive and nothing short of a top five will do. The good news is that he has finished second or third in four of his last five races and this team is one of the strongest in the garage at the moment.

9. Clint Bowyer
Last six races average finish at Dover: 12.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Dover: 13.54 in 13 attempts

Bowyer has both recent momentum and track success in his favor this week. After a disappointing two seasons when he failed to crack the top 10 once in four races, he turned his fortunes around last spring and finished sixth in the FedEx 400. An eighth last fall and a fifth this spring kept the streak alive and that success underscores the confidence he feels after earning seven top 10s in the last eight races of 2012. His victory at Richmond and fourth last week come at a good time for the Kansas native because Dover and next week’s venue Talladega have been kind to him in recent years. That will give him an opportunity to gain some momentum before the series heads into a part of the schedule heavily dominated by 1.5-mile tracks on which he has struggled.

10. Kyle Busch
Last six races average finish at Dover: 12.83 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Dover: 14.33 in 15 attempts

If Edwards fails to break up the Chasers dominance of the top spots, Busch is the next most likely candidate. After watching the No. 99 crash in his rear view mirror in this June’s FedEx 400, he blew an engine about 40 laps later, although the Fox TV network did not acknowledge he was gone for about another 25 laps. That 29th-place finish and a 31st in 2009 because of crash damage bookends a four-race streak of sixth-place or better finishes. Busch also had engine trouble last week and Joe Gibbs Racing could be using the No. 18 and 20 as experiments for the No. 11, but if all the parts and pieces stay in place, Busch should be one of this week’s top contenders.

OTHERS OF NOTE

11. Denny Hamlin
Last six races average finish at Dover: 14.50 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Dover: 20.46 in 13 attempts

Last week’s performance by Hamlin will make the list of top-10 stories at the end of the year. After a mistake by the crew at Chicagoland, he said he would win New Hampshire. By the time he hit the track, he had a moment to reflect on just how difficult predicting wins can be, so he backed off the guarantee, and when the crew made another critical mistake by putting the wrong air pressures in his tires for qualification, his winning from 32nd was a long shot that further shook his confidence. He said he would be happy to be in the top 10 by lap 100, but he underestimated the strength of his car. He was leading before the one-third mark and dominated the remainder of the race. Dover is liable to be a different matter altogether because this is his third-worst track in terms of career average finishes.

13. Marcos Ambrose
Last six races average finish at Dover: 15.33 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Dover: 18.00 in 8 attempts

Ambrose is neither a Chase contender nor among the top-10 in his past six races’ average finish, but he needs to be recognized this week regardless. It took this driver six attempts before he cracked the top 10 at Dover, but he has been perfect since and enters the weekend with three consecutive strong runs. He has also been extremely stout on the little sister track of Bristol, and with some luck, he will keep his streak alive.

14. Greg Biffle
Last six races average finish at Dover: 15.83 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Dover: 12.20 in 20 attempts

Biffle is a perfect example of how fickle momentum can be. He won the first Dover race in 2005 and that kicked off a string of 11 consecutive results of 13th or better. All but two of those were top-10 results and one of them was his second career victory in 2008. In fall 2010, that came to a screeching halt with a 19th-place finish. Last year, he finished 19th again in June and was 27th in the fall. He came close to cracking the top 10 once more with an 11th in the FedEx 400, but since he has not finished that well during the Chase yet, it is difficult to predict a strong run this week.

15. Brad Keselowski
Last six races average finish at Dover: 17.00 in 5 attempts
Career avg. finish at Dover: 21.50 in 6 attempts

Dover will test Keselowski’s momentum. He enters the weekend with 11 top 10s in the past dozen races and he is mentioned often as one of this year’s favorites to win the Cup. He will have to survive the high banks to remain a top pick, however, and he has never cracked the top 10 there during his career. With an average finish of 21.5 in six races, there are only a handful of venues on which he has struggled more, but he came close this June with a 12th-place finish in the FedEx 400.

17. Kasey Kahne
Last six races average finish at Dover: 17.50 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Dover: 21.76 in 17 attempts

By his Dover numbers alone, it would be difficult to say with certainty that Kahne will finish among the top 10. With a career average finish of 21.8, only Sonoma is worse and he actually has quite a few challenges lined up in front of him during the Chase. Kahne has a 21.7 average finish at Martinsville, a 20.8 at Talladega, and a 20.0 at Phoenix, which makes all of those Chase tracks among his five worst. An 18.8 at Texas ranks that track eighth among circuits he would rather avoid, but he has momentum on his side with back-to-back top fives in the first two playoff races. More encouraging yet, Chicagoland is one of his least productive tracks overall as well, but he overcame the stats and ran strong there two weeks ago in the Geico 400.

18. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Last six races average finish at Dover: 18.83 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Dover: 17.48 in 25 attempts

Fans who like patterns will be interested in Earnhardt’s last six races. In those events, he has alternated one top 10 with a result in the low teens and if the pattern holds, he is due to earn another top 10 this week. At first glance, that would seem to be a massive undertaking since he has only one top 10 at Dover since 2007, but the good news is that came in this June’s FedEx 400. If consistency ends up being an important factor in winning the Chase, Earnhardt could be one of the frontrunners before Homestead, but the team still needs to work on its consistency and begin to record consecutive top 10s.

19. Tony Stewart
Last six races average finish at Dover: 19.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Dover: 13.44 in 27 attempts

Immediately after moving into the No. 14 as an owner/driver, Stewart had a lot of success at Dover. He posted three consecutive top 10s there and it appeared he would revert to his old form that dated back to his earliest races in the Cup series. That was not the case, however. Stewart fell two laps off the pace in the 2010 AAA 400 and he has not completed all the laps of a Dover race since. If one looks at only his last four efforts on this high-banked track, he has an average finish of 25th and none of his attempts has cracked the top 20.

21. Martin Truex Jr.
Last six races average finish at Dover: 20.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Dover: 16.38 in 13 attempts

Truex probably wishes that he could count his spring results at Dover toward his Chase total. In the last three June races, he has swept the top 12 and earned two top 10s. His last three fall races have not even come close to matching that success with a streak of 30-something results. Statistics are not always reliable indicators of how well a driver will run. In identifying patterns, tendencies are unearthed, however. No two tracks are alike and often the handling characteristics change even from spring to fall on a given venue. It does not matter why that is correct, but for Truex it has been an inconvenient truth.

All Drivers: Last six races at Dover
DriverAvg. finish (attempts)DriverAvg. finish (attempts)
1. Jimmie Johnson 5.00 (6) 21. Martin Truex Jr. 20.67 (6)
2. Matt Kenseth 5.50 (6) 22. Jamie McMurray 21.17 (6)
3. Kevin Harvick 9.33 (6) 23. Juan Pablo Montoya 22.50 (6)
4. Carl Edwards 10.00 (6) 24. David Ragan 24.00 (6)
5. Jeff Burton 10.67 (6) 25. Bobby Labonte 25.50 (6)
5. Mark Martin 10.67 (6) 26. Regan Smith 26.67 (6)
7. Kurt Busch 11.17 (6) 27. Casey Mears 27.83 (6)
8. Jeff Gordon 11.67 (6) 28. Reed Sorenson 29.75 (4)
9. Clint Bowyer 12.67 (6) 29. David Gilliland 30.67 (6)
10. Kyle Busch 12.83 (6) 30. Travis Kvapil 31.80 (5)
11. Denny Hamlin 14.50 (6) 31. Sam Hornish Jr. 32.00 (3)
12. Ryan Newman 15.00 (6) 32. Scott Speed 33.00 (5)
13. Marcos Ambrose 15.33 (6) 33. Landon Cassill 34.25 (4)
14. Greg Biffle 15.83 (6) 34. David Stremme 34.40 (5)
15. Brad Keselowski 17.00 (5) 35. Dave Blaney 35.17 (6)
16. Paul Menard 17.33 (6) 36. Mike Bliss 36.17 (6)
17. Kasey Kahne 17.50 (6) 37. JJ Yeley 37.40 (5)
18. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 18.83 (6) 38. Joe Nemechek 39.50 (6)
19. Tony Stewart 19.67 (6) 39. Michael McDowell 40.67 (6)
20. Joey Logano 19.83 (6) 40. Josh Wise 42.00 (3)

Caution to the wind

Most caution flags: 16 (1993 Splitifre Spark Plug 500)

Fewest caution flags: 0 (1971 Mason-Dixon 500)

Average number of caution flags per race: 7.0

Final Caution, last five races:
June 2012: Lap 365 of 400 – oil on track (from Jeff Burton).
October 2011: Lap 363 of 400 – 1-car accident on frontstretch (Greg Biffle).
May 2011: Lap 363 of 400 – 1-car spin in turn 4 (Juan Pablo Montoya).
September 2010: Lap 291 of 400 – Debris.
May 2010: Lap 287 of 400 – 1-car accident in turn 4 (Brad Keselowski).

Most caution laps: 103 (1993 Splitifre Spark Plug 500)

Fewest caution laps: 0 (1971 Mason-Dixon 500)

Average number of caution laps per race: 45.3

Leading the way

Most leaders: 13 (2011 AAA 400, 2000 MBNA.com 400, 1997 Miller 500)

Fewest leaders: 3 (1982 Mason-Dixon 500, 1974 Mason-Dixon 500, 1971 Delaware 500, 1970 Mason-Dixon 300, 1969 Mason-Dixon 300)

Average number of leaders: 7.5

Most lead changes: 29 (1986 Budweiser 500, 1980 CRC Chemicals 500)

Fewest lead changes: 3 (1971 Delaware 500)

Average number of lead changes: 17.2

Victory Lane

Last five winners at Dover (starting position):
June 2012: Jimmie Johnson (2nd)
October 2011: Kurt Busch (2nd)
May 2011: Matt Kenseth (24th)
September 2010: Jimmie Johnson (1st)
May 2010: Kyle Busch (4th)

Worst starting position for race winner: 37th – Kyle Petty (June 1995)

A race at Dover has been won by the pole sitter 13 times and from the front row 28 times in 85 races.

Active winners at Dover

Jimmie Johnson (7)
Mark Martin (4)
Jeff Gordon (4)
Ryan Newman (3)
Tony Stewart (2)
Matt Kenseth (2)
Kyle Busch (2)
Greg Biffle (2)
Martin Truex Jr. (1)
Kurt Busch (1)
Jeff Burton (1)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1)
Carl Edwards (1)
Bobby Labonte (1)

First time winners at Dover

Jody Ridley: 1981 Mason-Dixon 500
Martin Truex Jr.: 2007 Autism Speaks 400 by Visa

Rough surface tracks (Dover and Darlington since 2009)

Dover and Darlington are a pair of rough-surface tracks that have challenged drivers for many years. The key to success on these courses is to avoid ripping the rubber off the tires in the opening laps after a pit stop. When a driver can do that, he will pass the competition late in a run.

DriverCombined Avg.AttemptsDoverDarlington
Jimmie Johnson 7.73 11 4.43 13.50
Matt Kenseth 8.27 11 5.29 13.50
Carl Edwards 11.18 11 9.57 14.00
Kevin Harvick 11.18 11 10.43 12.50
Mark Martin 11.82 11 10.57 14.00
Kurt Busch 12.64 11 10.29 16.75
Ryan Newman 12.64 11 14.00 10.25
Denny Hamlin 13.18 11 17.57 5.50
Greg Biffle 13.45 11 14.00 12.50
Jeff Burton 13.73 11 11.43 17.75
Jeff Gordon 13.82 11 13.71 14.00
Kyle Busch 14.18 11 14.29 14.00
Tony Stewart 14.18 11 17.14 9.00
Kasey Kahne 15.09 11 15.86 13.75
Brad Keselowski 16.60 10 21.50 9.25
Martin Truex Jr 16.82 11 20.71 10.00
Marcos Ambrose 17.45 11 16.00 20.00
Clint Bowyer 18.00 11 12.43 27.75
Dale Earnhardt Jr 18.27 11 17.86 19.00
Jamie McMurray 18.91 11 20.14 16.75
Joey Logano 19.55 11 19.14 20.25
Brian Vickers 19.57 7 15.50 25.00
Paul Menard 19.64 11 19.43 20.00
David Reutimann 20.91 11 19.71 23.00
Regan Smith 21.36 11 26.00 13.25
Juan Pablo Montoya 21.55 11 23.57 18.00
David Ragan 24.45 11 24.00 25.25
Bobby Labonte 25.45 11 25.86 24.75
Casey Mears 28.09 11 25.14 33.25
Sam Hornish Jr 28.33 6 27.25 30.50
Reed Sorenson 28.75 8 27.60 30.67
Travis Kvapil 30.38 8 31.80 28.00
Landon Cassill 32.00 6 34.25 27.50
David Gilliland 32.91 11 32.43 33.75
David Stremme 33.10 10 33.83 32.00
Scott Speed 34.30 10 33.67 35.25
Dave Blaney 34.91 11 35.71 33.50
JJ Yeley 38.00 8 37.40 39.00
Mike Bliss 38.89 9 36.71 46.50
Joe Nemechek 40.10 11 39.29 42.00
Michael McDowell 41.33 9 40.67 42.67
Josh Wise 42.25 4 42.00 -

Beaver's Best Bets for Dover

Winner: Jimmie Johnson. This pick does not really need an explanation, but here is one anyway. Johnson has won four of his last seven Dover attempts and is primed to win again after finishing second at both Chicagoland and New Hampshire.

Dark horse top 10: Marcos Ambrose. The Tasmanian Devil has struggled in recent races this season, but he will put that behind him at Dover. He will not finish in the top five, but he should be good for a solid top 10.

Don't bet on it: Tony Stewart. This was the only track on which Stewart struggled during last season’s Chase and that will shake the driver’s confidence slightly. He will finish better at Dover than he has in the past four races, but will be strong enough a top 15 only.

Beat Beaver -- Predicting the top 10

Dover is not quite as predictable as New Hampshire, but there are a lot of top-10 streaks that help identify this week’s favorites. Success predicts success, so this week’s picks primarily come from among those who ran strong in the past three seasons on this high-banked concrete oval.

1. Jimmie Johnson
2. Jeff Gordon
3. Matt Kenseth
4. Clint Bowyer
5. Carl Edwards
6. Kasey Kahne
7. Mark Martin
8. Kyle Busch
9. Marcos Ambrose
10. Kevin Harvick

LAST WEEK'S PICKS

Last week was as close to perfect as one can reasonably expect from a list of top-10 picks made before the weekend starts. I identified the winner and nearly swept the top three positions. I predicted Jeff Gordon would finish second and Jimmie Johnson would be third, but they swapped those spots. Additionally, eight of my top-10 picks actually finished in the top 10 with Kevin Harvick finishing one spot away in 11th. The only driver who clearly failed to live up to his forecast was Kyle Busch, who suffered a strained engine while running with the leaders.

For any driver correctly picked in the top 10, five points are awarded. For any driver picked in his exact finishing position, five bonus points are awarded. For correctly predicting the winner, a total of 20 points are awarded. So for a perfect top 10, a total of 110 points are available. One point is subtracted for each driver picked who finishes outside the top 10.

Predicted DriverActual FinishPoints
1. Denny Hamlin 1 20
2. Jeff Gordon 3 5
3. Jimmie Johnson 2 5
4. Tony Stewart 7 5
5. Clint Bowyer 4 5
6. Kyle Busch 28 -1
7. Ryan Newman 10 5
8. Brad Keselowski 6 5
9. Kevin Harvick 11 -1
10. Brian Vickers 9 5

Total points for New Hampshire = 53 (out of a possible perfect score of 110)

Season best: 53 points (New Hampshire, September); Season worst: 2 points (Daytona, July); Season avg.: 22.9 points (17 races)

For more stats and analysis, follow @FantasyRace on Twitter.

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