What matters at Dover: Passers of all walks challenged by unique surface

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What matters in today’s NASCAR Cup Series race and how will drivers embrace Dover’s challenging concrete high banks? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends and that will shape the Drydene 400 at Dover International Speedway (2 p.m. ET on FS1):

The challenge of Dover is welcomed by its competitors

When Kyle Busch lambasted the high-downforce incarnation of the 750-horsepower package at Dover in 2019, it was a biting criticism — “The package sucks … All I can do is bitch about it and fall on deaf ears” — popularly misconstrued as a driver backing down from a challenge.

But that notion is an oversimplification. Dover, before and after 2019, was always a difficult track to grasp, a track position contest in which a select few drivers could thrive thanks to raw ability or a learned interpretation of its unique rubber-atop-concrete dynamic.

In 2015, Jimmie Johnson referred to time spent on Dover’s straightaways as a period to “work up your bravery” before sending the car into the high-banked corners. Martin Truex Jr. appreciated the track for the fact that “you have to drive the car really hard every lap.”

While drivers respect a good challenge, they don’t appreciate an additional frustration that neutralizes a positive outcome to the challenge. This was the likely genesis of Busch’s comments.

Busch, who, this week, referred to Dover as “one of my favorite racetracks,” believes his preferred route around the 1-mile oval — one that helped net two of his Cup Series victories there — is obsolete given the current body style of the Cup car.

“I used to think I was one of the better guys that could run the bottom,” Busch said. “But ever since we’ve run there with this body style, you really don’t wrap the bottom as much as you did in years prior to that.”

His passing marks from recent races suggest that, while his results aren’t glowing — his last win came in 2017 — he’s able to sift through traffic efficiently running a line he might not favor. In each of the last four Dover races, all at 750 horsepower, Busch scored an adjusted pass efficiency, the percentage of pass encounters resulting in his favor, better than the statistical expectation formed by his average running position:

The ability to overtake for position consistently and quickly is valued on any racing surface, but at Dover, where the hurdles for passing in a straightforward manner appear to be significantly higher, it’s a trait that can single-handedly flip a race and a result.

All spoils to the most adventurous groove-hunters

A nose for track position helps in getting a Dover result, and atop Dover’s concrete, such proficiency requires an able seeker of viable grooves.

As rubber coats the surface, it’s picked up by cold tires under caution-flag conditions, adding some additional stickiness. Additionally, the late runs at Dover see groove preference change for each driver, all of them working valiantly to optimize grip, something to which rookie Chase Briscoe identified this week as requiring repetition and a deep knowledge base.

“Your car is going to do something totally different at the beginning of the run versus the end of the run,” Briscoe said. “Dover’s hard. It’s a place where you have to have that experience as a driver to kind of know what to expect (with) that balance change. Crew chiefs and engineers have to kind of know the trends that normally happen there.”

Kyle Larson — paired with crew chief Cliff Daniels, a former engineer for 11-time Dover winner Jimmie Johnson — has a little bit of everything that Briscoe laid out, in addition to a reputation as one of NASCAR’s foremost groove-hunters.

He won at Dover in the 2019 fall race, an isolated race for the victory among efficient passers, but due to his 2020 suspension, didn’t compete there last season. He missed out on a low-downforce package that allowed drivers with speed to execute passes as they saw fit. Today, there won’t be a mechanical limit to Larson, who ranks first in surplus passing value this season on 750-horsepower tracks:

Statistically responsible for the creation of over 55 positions, Larson is the driver appearing most poised to deliver a bounty of spots to his Hendrick Motorsports team on a track where his competitors, despite a downforce package subjectively suiting them, will find track position difficult to obtain.

Restarts will see a wide disparity

Dover’s restarts are the kind necessitating the choose rule.

Across the track’s two races last season, the inside groove saw little opportunity for position retention and even less for a surprise gain. Between the second and seventh rows, cars occupying the inside line made just three passes for position, two coming from Ryan Blaney and one from Joey Logano.

But the disparity between the retention rates of both grooves will have the biggest impact, reshaping running orders. Using recent history as probability, it’s mathematically advantageous to restart sixth instead of third:

Kevin Harvick’s success at Dover in the 2020 doubleheader came almost as a direct result from his restarting prowess and the choose-zone decision-making that fueled it. He successfully defended position on 12 of 13 attempts (a 92.3% retention rate) with 10 of them originating from the preferred groove. Only one of his attempts (lap 40 of the second race) saw him faced with a retention probability below 50%.

Through eight races on choose-rule tracks this season, Brad Keselowski enjoyed the highest frequency of preferred groove restarts (63.8%), key in his series-best 29-position net gain. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (59.09%) and Blaney (58.8%) also habitually leaned towards the preferred groove.

The most intelligent position pickers today stand to be rewarded, as the outside groove and the high lines into which it leads should prove beneficial to runs of any length.

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What matters at Dover: Passers of all walks challenged by unique surface originally appeared on NBCSports.com