A lap at Dover International Speedway is one of the most difficult in the NASCAR Cup Series. It’s only a mile, so it has the beating and banging of a short track.
But Dover — site of this weekend’s Cup race — also has high banks, which allow for great speed. And it’s bumpy, which puts the car out of sorts.
It’s called the Monster Mile, and for good reason. The balance between being fast and being in the fence is a delicate one, and even the best drivers struggle to find it. And even after they find it, they often lose it.
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As good as Jimmie Johnson is at Dover — his 10 wins is the most by any active driver at any track — he has finished off of the lead lap in 12 of 30 races. He has led a preposterous 26.2 percent of the laps he has run at Dover. He has led at least one lap in 17 of the last 19 races and 23 of the 30 he has run there. And yet in terms of average finish, Dover (9.5) isn’t even in Johnson’s top five.
Johnson says he has loved the track since he first saw it in the late 1990s when he was in the ASA series — which is not to say he was perfectly comfortable on it. In fact, he was intimidated by Dover at first because of the speed the cars carry into the corners.
Johnson quickly discovered that being able to drive into those corners at speed is not the same as wanting to. He once said he needed to learn to get comfortable “with your eyes rolling around in your head” at high speeds.
It didn’t take very long. He won his first two Cup races at Dover, and his 10 career wins there are as many as the next four best active drivers combined. If Johnson dominated every track like he has dominated Dover—by winning one out of every three races—he would have 185 career wins. Alas, he has “only” 82.
Johnson cut his driving teeth in off-road trucks, so jostling around in a car — which happens every lap at Dover — is a familiar sensation. He says Dover is the only NASCAR track that reminds him of those days.
“Corner entry has a whole series of events that are fun at both ends of the race track,” he says. “You land in the corner, the steep banking and the speed and force you carry in really gets your attention.
“And then trying to get the power down is always challenging, too. You finally commit to the throttle and you are nearly airborne again up onto the straightaway.”