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Dover: the art of the deal, the art of the wheel. And the croupier says time to place your bets...

  Dover: Round Three of the NASCAR playoffs, and time to spin the wheel (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    By Mike Mulhern


    DOVER, Del.
    Frankie's, a Rat Pack Italian joint with surprising ambience and art, complete with a scooby- dooby-doo crooner working the room, which sits right off the casino-hotel's main colonnade, was packed with the usual odd assortment of casino nightlife Friday.

    Out on the main floor three of the four craps tables were alive, though the Blackjack tables and those strange poker tables seemed to be doing more business.
    The winners and losers? You can tell that the next day just by looking at their body language and the grins or frowns on their faces.
    The roulette wheel?
    Well, that was just outside….a concrete roulette wheel 'bout a mile around, awaiting NASCAR's Sunday afternoon croupiers.
    Now this Dover track has been host to the stock car series twice a season for years now (in maybe the only state that doesn't have a major commercial airport). But for a long time this town seemed something of a standoffish stop on the Cup tour.
    There used to the de rigueur Friday night rock-salt crab-picking over at Sambo's Tavern on the creek in nearby Leipsic, with its cool jukebox and tables covered thick with newspaper tablecloths, and a huge crowd of NASCAR crewmen and drivers hootin' and hollerin' and messing up their hands cracking those messy crabs fresh off the boat just outside.
    (And if you don't like seafood, well, this probably isn't the stop for you…though, you can drive a few miles south toward the air base and sometimes find some very, very interesting ethnic restaurants, run by Air Force relatives from around the world.)

  It should be beautiful weather for this Dover 400. And boss Denis McGlynn can hope for a crowd just like this one (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   But the hotels, well, there aren't that many really, not for a major NASCAR tour stop, even today.
    And back when, there were even fewer, and some would crank up the room rates to outrageous levels for race weekends, and if you didn't like it, well, just hike on up toward Philadelphia and find something else….and then fight the sometimes horrendous race traffic. (Still remember that Sunday riding shotgun to the Philly airport with the late Jeff Byrd, who was so determined to make an early post-race flight home that he literally ran the shoulder of the roads halfway up there….)
    However the last few years things have change quite a bit round here. And this huge casino hotel, right smack on the backstretch of Dover International Speedway, is one of them. Some of the rooms hang right over the track itself; and part of the third turn grandstands almost seems to be part of the casino-hotel's penthouse terrace.
    Dover, as a NASCAR stop, has always had its own personality. This has never been 'just another stop' for the NASCAR circus.
    Remember when Richard Petty came from seven laps down to win. Let me repeat that – Richard Petty was down seven laps at this one-mile track, and came back to win, yes. Of course there were a few oddly fortuitous caution flags…..

    Darian Grubb: Tony Stewart's crew chief is coming alive at just the right time. But can he keep it up? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And David Pearson, in his prime…..Carl Edwards just last week was talking about spending some time recently with Pearson (who won three straight NASCAR championships in the late 1960s but was widely considered over-the-hill at 40 when the Woods hired him….for that legendary 10-year run in the 1970s). And Edwards, not a shy type himself, was genuinely mesmerized by the tales Pearson was dealing him. (Heck, some of us who actually watched some of those tales unfold were mesmerized….)
    This season, with Goodyear building what almost seems like perfect tires each week -- tires that don't wear out, tires that don't blow out (unless you're using too much brake or too much camber), tires that don't give up much speed at all over a fuel run – it may be difficult to recall those days, not so long ago, that this place was one of the toughest, if not the toughest on right-fronts. Just ask Mark Martin, who has hit the third turn wall way too many times way too hard. During the height of one of those tire wars, tires here would blow out, almost like clockwork, every 29 laps. Tire engineers would jump inside trucks to hide, things were so tough.

     Kevin Harvick: the odds don't favor him at Dover. But maybe he can beat the odds here (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   But in Sunday's Dover 400 tires aren't expected to be any issue, and few here, except maybe Martin, will even give it much of a thought. Goodyear's got the same tire it ran here in May, and come to think of it, maybe some of those hard-hit memories are part of the reason Martin was clearly upset with his crew chief for not giving him any fresh tires down the stretch. Martin nearly won that race by stretching his tires….but he was obviously upset with strategy when it was all over.
    Sunday tires should easily go the 70-to-80-mile fuel window. And even two-tire stops might be key. (Former Goodyear racing boss Leo Mehl, who fought so many tire wars back in the day, ought to have a suite here, to watch how times have changed.)
    And fuel mileage? Every driver here knows well that this 400 can easily boil down to yet another gas mileage finish. Dover has a history of long runs of green….and teams are doing everything they can this season to maximize fuel mileage – though this epidemic of fuel mileage finishes has put quite a cloud over the sport this year, with no resolution in sight. (These fuel systems hold about 19.7 gallons of E-15 gasoline, and these engines make about 4.0 mpg.)     

    Victory Lane: Yes, but perhaps a bit too apropos. How much gas do you have in your tank? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  One worrisome downside to these gas mileage gambits – if an engineman leans the fuel-air mixture too much, the driver can burn a piston and blow a motor. Some drivers seem to be better than others at dealing with such lean settings…like Tony Stewart, who has opened the chase with back to back wins in fuel mileage finishes.
    So this is the setting for Round Three of the chase.
    Stewart's suddenly hot, but Dover is traditionally a tough track for him. In fact it's a tough track for several title contenders ( http://bit.ly/nCY5PK ).
    And Dover is a great track for three particular championship players, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.

    Jimmy Fennig: he made the winning bet for Matt Kenseth in May (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  So you want to beat Jimmie Johnson for the championship, eh?
    Good luck.
    What's it going to take?
    Well, here are some benchmarks to consider:

    -- In 2010, the season Johnson was 'vulnerable,' rivals insisted, he averaged a 6.2 finish in each of the 10 playoff races. He had one bad run, a 25th at Loudon in the opener, and followed with a win, the following week at Dover. That was his lone victory in the chase.

    -- In 2009 Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus ripped off four wins in the chase, had that early crash at Texas and finished 38th …which dropped their championship playoff average to 6.8.

    -- In 2008 Johnson and Knaus won three times in the chase, never finished worse than 15th, and averaged a sizzling 5.7 finish over the 10 events.


    Dover can bring out the beast in a man. Don't think ya ought to be messing with this Dale Jr. fan.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Edwards, according to the numbers he's put this season, has the best shot at beating Johnson for the title.
    But Edwards' playoff stats the last three years….well, he's been rather erratic.
    Last season he did win the final two chase races, at Phoenix and Homestead, but his 10-race average was only 11.3. That includes one bad race (a 34th at California), and two mediocre races (at Talladega and Texas). The Jack Roush guys were coming off an 18-month struggle, but the turnaround began that July, and yet it still took time for Edwards to get going again.
    In that very forgettable 2009 Edwards went winless in the playoffs and finished with a woeful 17.9 average.
    But then in the 2008 chase Edwards (who had the best overall season record of any driver) won three times, logged eight top-fives, finished with an 8.0 average (including  bad days at Talladega and Charlotte)…though still coming up 69 points short to Johnson.
    So the  bookie's line here Sunday is that this 400 should be a showdown: Edwards versus Johnson versus Kenseth. And tour leaders Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, well, the numbers say this should not be a great afternoon for any of them.
    However in racing, as in gambling, you always first have to spin the wheel.


  Now this is a game face: Jeff Gordon. No time for cute sound bites like 'Five-time chump,' or 'idiots.' "It's time to get serious about this championship." (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)




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