Top 5, Dover: The rise of air blocking, Monster Mile catches a break, IndyCar scandal

DOVER, Del. — Five thoughts after Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Dover Motor Speedway …

1. Taking Stock

The technique used to win NASCAR races has unquestionably entered a different era. Or should we say Air-a?

Like a football team trying to run out the clock while leading, the top NASCAR Cup Series drivers have their own version of a prevent defense: Using the Next Gen’s dislike of dirty air to allow the second-place car to come close — but not actually score a win.

Allow Kyle Larson, one of NASCAR’s elite air blockers himself, to explain how Denny Hamlin won Sunday’s race at Dover.

“I knew once I got within three (car lengths), he was just going to start moving around and shut my air off,” Larson said. “It’s just really easy to do it.”

Larson, who used the word “easy” multiple times in detailing the technique, would know. In Stage 2, Larson said he backed the field up to his car and they got close enough to appear a lead change could be impending; but then Larson pushed more, made his car wide enough to shut the trailing cars’ air off and keep them behind.

Drivers using the air-blocking technique have learned they don’t even have to run the exact same line as the oncoming car, which makes it different than previous eras of mirror-driving attempts; simply dirtying most of the air behind them with a sweeping entry does the trick.

That’s part of the reason why on Saturday Kyle Busch said this about the Next Gen: “The biggest struggle with this car is you can use it more as a defense tool of air blocking on the guys behind you than being able to go out and pass the guy in front of you.”

And that’s exactly how the race the next day was decided, as Hamlin used his car to go on defense — as any of the top drivers would after they gained an understanding of the physics at play.

Hamlin said drivers began learning about the power of air blocking in the previous generation car, which in its latter years used a 550 horsepower package with a giant spoiler. A memorable example is when Joey Logano played a tough defense against Kevin Harvick in a 2020 playoff race at Kansas, which was viewed by many with frustration.

Now it’s evolved to become a regular occurrence in the Next Gen, and a required tool any winning driver must use. Hamlin called it a “cat-and-mouse game” where “all you need to do is get him to cross your wake and you know you’re going to send his car off track.”

Larson said Hamlin didn’t do anything remarkable in terms of Sunday’s air blocking, but it was the No. 11’s ability to get the lead in the first place that really decided the race.

“It just makes your execution that much more important: Good pit stops, good restarts,” Larson said. “It’s all the details to get yourself into that lead, where you can play a little bit of defense and hold them off easy.”

2. Fastest Car Tracker

Was Larson faster than Hamlin? That’s debatable if Larson would have gotten clean air, but without that, the numbers aren’t there to support the No. 5 car for being the top pick this week.

Hamlin led the most laps (136 to Larson’s 39), had the highest number of fastest laps run (59 to Larson’s 53, per NASCAR’s loop data) and also ranked first in green-flag speed (Larson was second).

That ties up the score between Fastest Cars and Other Cars as the season’s one-third mark approaches.

Fastest Car Score: Other Cars 6, Fastest Cars 6

Fastest Cars by Driver: Hamlin 2, William Byron 2, Michael McDowell 1, Tyler Reddick 1, Martin Truex Jr. 1, Christopher Bell 1, Kyle Larson 1, Todd Gilliland 1, Joey Logano 1, Ty Gibbs 1.

Denny Hamlin

Eventual winner Denny Hamlin kept Kyle Larson at bay on Sunday at Dover thanks to the Next Gen car’s dislike for dirty air. (Logan Riely / Getty Images)

3. Q&A

Each week in this space, we’ll pose one question and attempt to answer one from the past.

Q: Can anything be done about the aforementioned air blocking?

The Next Gen car came along with an interesting new piece of technology: A rear-view camera that would allow drivers to scrap their traditional mirror (which is hard for them to see out of in the new vehicle).

But in Larson’s view, the new tool is almost too useful. Larson said he frequently uses the rear-view camera to assist with air-blocking and cited the technology in winning both Stage 2 on Sunday and the Las Vegas race earlier this season.

“When I was leading and (Alex) Bowman was behind me, I’m literally just staring at my camera,” Larson said. “When he turns right, I’m turning right. When he pulls down, I’m pulling down.

“How I won at Vegas was just shutting (Tyler) Reddick’s air off and watching my camera. It’s just really easy to do.”

Larson knows the impact of taking tools away. At the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals, a hot topic for years was drivers watching the video board in Turn 1 as they raced down the frontstretch, which allowed them to see where their competitors were running (there are no spotters in midget racing). Larson said he won the 2021 Chili Bowl by using it. After it became enough of an issue, the video board was moved to a different location last year.

So the camera is an advantage for the leader along the same lines as the video board, which is why Larson proposed getting rid of it on Sunday.

“If they took the cameras out of the car, that’s probably one of the little things I think could fix it,” Larson said of air blocking.

But Hamlin refuted that idea because he didn’t use the camera on Sunday, and he relies on his spotter instead (“I don’t think I’m good enough to drive and look backward,” he said). And Hamlin crew chief Chris Gabehart viewed this racing style as something that has evolved as drivers learned how to use it to their benefit.

“Aero blocking would have been just as effective five years ago or 10 years ago, 15 years ago, if the drivers had learned to perfect it back then the way they have now,” Gabehart said. “I don’t entirely think it has anything to do with the vehicle being driven as it is the drivers driving them, their acute awareness of physics and how well it works when you take the guy’s air behind you.”

If that’s the case, there may be no going back — regardless of the Next Gen car.

A: What should NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports do about Dover?

This question from last year’s Top 5 column came in the wake of a second consecutive rainout and Monday race for a track that has struggled to find its footing in recent years.

“Dover needs a break,” we wrote at the time.

Well, guess what? It got a break with a gorgeous, warm day on Sunday. Temperatures were in the 80s for Dover’s first normal race since 2019, and the fans responded with a large turnout — the biggest Monster Mile crowd in years.

Dover had two COVID-affected races run as a doubleheader in 2020, then ran a limited-capacity race in 2021 as the world slowly reopened. Then, in 2022 and 2023, its events were rained out — making it three rainouts in four of the last non-COVID races.

So in that sense, it was tremendous to see fans flock to the track despite an iffy date on the calendar. There was some luck involved — Saturday, for example, was 20 degrees cooler with rain showers in the area — but Dover has become a very underrated place in terms of the fan experience.

On Sunday, its midway was packed with all sorts of things to do — for both adults and families — and there were bountiful music acts and driver appearances. Compared to other tracks we’ve seen recently, Dover was near the top in terms of pre-race entertainment value.

That’s going to be a key for the track to keep its place on the calendar now that it’s been reduced to one race. As long as fans continue to show up, there’s no reason to think the place can’t be very successful with its combination of location (within two hours of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington D.C.) and unique racing (there’s really no track like it on the circuit).

4. NASquirks

The age-old expression in NASCAR is “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” So if someone gets caught breaking the rules in NASCAR, the reaction from the public is often along the lines of, “That penalty was deserved because they were being sneaky, but that was clever. Good try!”

We saw a much different reaction in IndyCar last week, when it was revealed Team Penske drivers had used push-to-pass (a 50-horsepower boost) at an illegal time of the race. Josef Newgarden in particular caught the bulk of the blowback and agreed his victory from St. Petersburg — which was stripped via disqualification — was “tainted.” There was much embarrassment and outrage about the entire situation.

But why is there such a difference between IndyCar and NASCAR when it comes to the perception of rules violations?

“I don’t think that cheating is as common in IndyCar as it may be in NASCAR,” Graham Rahal told reporters in Alabama this week. “I really don’t.”

Part of the reason might be there are other areas to make more significant gains in IndyCar — specifically the dampers, which are open for development and are a point of emphasis that separates the elite from the rest.

“You can do so much in the dampers that cheating on the rest is relatively small compared to what you can gain on the dampers,” Romain Grosjean said.

But in NASCAR, cheating — or “living in the gray area,” as Chase Briscoe put it — is practically essential. Any team that isn’t pushing the limits probably won’t be running in the top 20 of a Cup Series race.

Joey Logano noted the cultures are different across all different forms of motorsport, and that extends to the fans of each one and the racers themselves.

“It seems like it should be similar, right?” Logano said. “They’re all motorsports, and racers and people trying to figure out how to make their cars faster and win races. But it’s just the way they go about things.”

That said, this might not just be cultural in this case. As Larson noted, even in NASCAR there would be major penalties and shock if a team showed up at the track with 50 more horsepower.

“You would be expelled from the series,” Larson said.

And Austin Cindric, whose father Tim spent much of the week explaining to the IndyCar world how the infraction occurred due to his role as Team Penske president, said there was simply no apples-to-apples comparison, which made the conversation moot.

“I can’t think of something we have (in NASCAR) that would be overly relatable to what’s gone on this week in IndyCar,” Austin Cindric said.



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5. Five at No. 5

Our mini power rankings after Race No. 12/38 (including exhibitions):

1. Kyle Larson (last week: 3): The points leader keeps bringing fast cars and should be in contention to win every race for the foreseeable future.

2. Denny Hamlin (last week: 5): We almost dropped Hamlin from the rankings after last week, so he can’t suddenly shoot up to No. 1 despite calling his shot on Sunday. It’s been an oddly up-and-down season for Hamlin, whose three wins are his only three top-five finishes.

3. William Byron (last week: 1): We’ll try not to overreact to Byron’s disappointing day at Dover, which was going well until it was ruined by a bad pit stop that left him mired in traffic and unable to regain his track position. Then he got caught in a crash to top it off.

4. Chase Elliott (last week: 4): He may have been overlooked since Sunday resulted in no laps led, but Elliott drove from 29th to fifth and still hasn’t finished worse than 19th all season.

5. Martin Truex Jr. (last week: not ranked): The last spot here came down to Truex and Tyler Reddick, who finished 11th. But Truex had one of the fastest cars on Sunday and might have contended for the win had he not suffered nose damage by running into the back of Alex Bowman on a restart, so he gets the final position this week.

Dropped out: Reddick.

(Top photo of Denny Hamlin celebrating Sunday’s win at Dover: James Gilbert / Getty Images)

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