News & Media

Caraviello: Dover, 'Dega and potential trouble in between

September 30, 2012, David Caraviello,

Sometimes, events can have interesting consequences. Take for instance the case of Kansas Speedway, which the Sprint Cup tour doesn't visit for another three weeks but will have an impact on the Chase well before the circuit visits the bluffs of the Missouri River. The extreme winter cold and extreme summer heat in that region aged the asphalt on the 1.5-mile track before its time, evidenced by the large chunks of pavement that worked themselves loose before the facility's most recent event in the spring.

That Kansas needed resurfacing isn't at issue. The track layers were in danger of sliding down and buckling, and promoters at all venues owned by International Speedway Corp. have taken a more proactive stance on potential asphalt problems since the infamous pothole episode that marred the Daytona 500 two years ago. So it needed to be done. It couldn't be completed during the winter because asphalt plants don't operate in cold weather, so it was scheduled in between Kansas' two Sprint Cup weekends -- the latter of which was pushed back from its early October date to later in the month to allow more time to ensure the project would be completed.

"There's one silver lining: Talladega being moved up on the schedule by two weeks this season gives drivers a little longer to recover from whatever might befall them there. But that doesn't lessen the potential impact the place might have on the championship race."


The result is not just a gleaming new ribbon of fresh, fast asphalt encircling the Kansas infield. Given that the Sunflower State track needed to switch dates with another ISC facility to provide a wide enough window to finish the resurfacing, the undertaking also inadvertently produced a two-headed monster early in the Chase schedule that's completely capable of altering the complexion of this championship race.

Dover and 'Dega.

Back to back.

They're nothing alike, not in size or surface or in the kind of racing they produce, but the 1-mile concrete oval in Dover and the 2.66-mile restrictor-plate track at Talladega are the two facilities most capable of turning this playoff on its head -- and now, thanks to that Kansas repaving project, they're slotted within eight days of each other. Currently, there seem to be three defined layers to this title race: leading contenders Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin, a group of drivers hanging in there, and Jeff Gordon by his lonesome way down at the bottom of a hole. Consecutive events at Dover and Talladega, where chaos is often more the rule than the exception, are more than capable of scrambling that hierarchy, or even reversing it altogether.

Everyone knows about the capricious nature of racing at Talladega Superspeedway and its reputation for sending cars airborne and producing large chain-reaction accidents. Kurt Busch's championship hopes effectively were ended last year when he was caught up in an accident on the big Alabama track, a fate similar to the one that had befallen Tony Stewart two years earlier. In 2008, a big wreck near the finish took out five Chase contenders, and one earlier in the event sent Denny Hamlin to the hospital for observation. Jimmie Johnson's 2006 title run took on heroic proportions after he rallied from a last-lap crash at Talladega that buried him deep in points.

But it doesn't take a wreck -- Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. essentially doomed themselves at Talladega last year when their ride-at-the-rear strategy backfired after they waited too late to make their move toward the front. It's the kind of place that sets everyone on edge, that makes everyone nervous, that has some drivers beaten even before they slide behind the wheel. There's one silver lining: Talladega being moved up on the schedule by two weeks this season gives drivers a little longer to recover from whatever might befall them there. But that doesn't lessen the potential impact the place might have on the championship race.

Particularly since it comes right on the heels of Dover, a bare-knuckled brawler of a track in its own right, and a facility capable of generating accidents every bit as large-scale as those found in Talladega. They might not be as spectacular, but they can be more punishing -- crashes at Dover, a high-speed, high-banked, close-quarter oval, are the kind drivers feel for days afterward. The track certainly reminded everyone of that in June, when after weeks of hand-wringing over long green-flag runs in Sprint Cup races, the Monster Mile chewed up 12 cars in an accident just 10 laps into the event. It was typical Dover: Stewart and Landon Cassill touched on a tight backstretch, and cars spinning sideways left oncoming vehicles nowhere to go but into the mess.

"We have been concerned about this race for the last three or four years," Stewart told reporters Friday at Dover, with good reason. It doesn't inspire quite the dread that Talladega does, but in terms of ruining Chase chances, Dover is as willing and able as anywhere else. A 19-car crash from 2004, started when Johnson hit a spinning Dave Blaney -- the video of which looks more like a demolition derby than a NASCAR race -- stands as Exhibit A of what the Delaware facility is capable of. Dover's race history is riddled with large-scale crashes that are the direct result of racing at such high speeds on such a narrow layout. Drivers zoom out of those corners at 150 mph. If there's trouble in front of them, they're often on top of it before they have time to react.

The term "wild card" is trite and overused when it comes to describing potentially troublesome Chase venues, but scheduling Dover and Talladega back-to-back is like pulling a pair of them straight out of the deck. It's still early in this playoff, and it would be premature to predict that the championship might be decided during these two perilous weekends. But the Dover and Talladega races promise to set the table for a final act dominated by 1.5-mile intermediate tracks, on which the field can get a little more strung out and large-scale accidents are a little less common. Now, that's not to say that somebody won't encounter trouble at Charlotte or Texas that will derail his title hopes. But Dover and Talladega have the potential to jumble the field for a stretch run in which the remaining contenders will race for the championship.

All of it because the original pavement in Kansas didn't quite take to the region's climate, and because a new surface had to be put in, and because a switch on the schedule was made to accommodate it. Next season, with its asphalt concerns in the rearview mirror, Kansas will move back to its early October date, and Talladega will return to its appropriate slot nearer to Halloween. Drivers in the championship hunt still will have to tiptoe around the Monster Mile and the Big One, albeit with a breather in between. This year, no such luck. So strap in, boys. The next eight days promise to be a very bumpy ride.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.