MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- There's a major obstacle in the road for the 12 contenders in NASCAR's Chase for the Championship and it has earned an appropriate nickname -- the Monster Mile.
The next stop on NASCAR's Chase is Dover -- the only concrete one-mile oval on the championship trail and one of the most pivotal races in the Chase. The sometimes slick surface and the high banks that make this track a bigger version of Bristol Motor Speedway can make or break a driver's hopes of winning the championship.
This track is one of the true separation points in the Chase, where contenders are separated from the pretenders, and by Dover moving to the third race of the Chase (its traditionally been the second), it takes on increased significance.
Chase drivers who excel during the 400 hard laps of Sunday's race can move away from the field, but those who get involved in one of the many crashes that have been a trademark of Dover racing could see their hopes crushed. Here's a look a the keys to the race.
Sounds simple enough, but it's easier said than done at Dover. Races there can be a real wreckfest with caution periods often hitting double digits. There were 13 cautions spanning a whopping 66 laps when Carl Edwards won the Chase race at Dover in 2007. There were 10 caution periods for 45 laps when Greg Biffle won here in 2008. Even those pale in comparison to the 16 yellow flags for 103 laps in the pre-Chase days of 1993.
Last year, Chase drivers Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Biffle, Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer finished 15th or worse at Dover and only Harvick was able to pedal his way back into the contention by the end of the Chase.
After winning the first two races of the Chase this season, Stewart has a seven-point lead over Harvick heading into Dover and realizes there are challenges ahead.
"We've got a tough hurdle ahead of us next week at Dover," Stewart said. "We really struggled there and that's the one race in the Chase that I'm worried about most. So this is the best scenario we can have going into it. Our guys are pumped up and I am proud of Darian [Grubb, crew chief] and these guys. They never give up. So we are going to keep digging for these next eight weeks."
Dover creates an unusual challenge, combining the elements of Bristol because of its concrete surface and high banks and Talladega because of how a big crash can ruin a racer's day.
Despite the perils, Harvick isn't worried heading into Dover.
"We should be fine in Dover," Harvick said. "I felt like we've run well there the last few times so I don't really have any specific concerns. I think as you go to every racetrack there is always concern on whether you're going to run good or bad and you never really know until you get there and see what the tire is and see exactly what the weekend brings with weather and all the different things that come with putting a weekend together."
Although his driver is second in points heading to Dover, crew chief Gil Martin likes Harvick's chances.
"If someone would have told me that we would be seven points out of the lead after two races, I'd have been tickled to death," Martin said. "I am not going to be mad going into Dover seven points out of the lead with eight to go ... we're still in this thing."
The irony of Dover is despite its penchant for Yellow Flag Fever, it can still turn in to a fuel mileage race. With the first two races of the Chase coming down to fuel economy, each driver and team has to be aware of this variable.
Last year's Dover Chase race had just four yellow flags for 19 laps. The last caution came on lap 291 and lasted for five laps, which meant the final 105 laps were lean and green. Fuel mileage was key as Johnson played the right strategy to win the race.
Lesson learned by another driver.
"I think that fuel mileage is always a possibility to be a part of it," Harvick said. "There's no way to know exactly how many races will work out that way, but when you look at the history or you go back and look at the stats for the year, whether its Cup or Nationwide, for whatever reason there seems to be a lot more runs at the end that come down to fuel mileage. You have to plan for it and you have to count on it happening based on past history. ... It will come into play again."
Harvick's on-track nemesis -- Kyle Busch -- also understands the importance of calculating fuel mileage, even at Dover.
"Your strategy is to get better fuel mileage than anybody else out there," Busch said. "How you do that? I couldn't tell you. Certainly there are other guys that get better mileage than us, but we get better mileage than others. We'll see how it all plays out."
Momentum is important in any sport, especially NASCAR. Nobody has capitalized on this variable more than Stewart, who last month said he was running so bad this season he would be just "taking up a spot in the Chase."
But even the grizzled "Hoosier Hotshot" from Columbus, Ind., questions the value of momentum despite its obvious impact.
"When you talk about momentum, that race car doesn't know anything about momentum," Stewart said. "It knows what you put in it; it knows how we drive it. It doesn't know stats; it doesn't know anything other than just what's put in it. Momentum deals with people.
"I'm hoping and praying that we're through that bad luck string now and things are hopefully going to click the next eight weeks."
Momentum, however, can turn around quickly and that is why several leading contenders hope to get steal "Big Mo" from Stewart at Dover.
"It's a long Chase," Kyle Busch said. "There have been periods of time this year where we come into the race as the points leader, had a bad week and fall back to fifth in points -- 20-something points behind the leader. In three or four races we make it back up. ... Going to Dover -- a good place for us and certainly some others -- we know it's definitely going to be a tough Chase and poor finishes definitely make it a lot tougher.
"I think we're going to play it out as we have all year. We haven't changed anything. We're just going out there to do the best we can to run the hardest we can, the smartest we can and let the results take care of themselves. If we finish enough times in the top-five or the top-10 or win a couple then the results will take care of themselves. For us, we're not pressured. ... We just have to know that there's still a lot more miles left in racing and wherever it falls, we'll let the good Lord tell us where it's at."
Stewart realizes that his good fortune could be short-lived.
"I wish I could say you could predict it," Stewart said. "The hard thing is, as much as it turned for us, you never know what's going to happen. ... The reality of it is you look at guys that are in the back half of the Chase right now, they're guys that a lot of people expected to be in the top-five, top-three in the points right now. It shows that one or two bad days can put you in a bad spot pretty quick.
"As much as we want to sit here and beat our chest and be proud of what we've done -- and we are proud of what we've done these first two weeks -- we got eight hard weeks to go here. The celebrating isn't going to last long. We got a lot of work to do."
Because of Dover's unique concrete surface, rubber buildup from the tires can be a factor as the little pellets of used rubber drift up to the high line of the track. When a car gets into that area it's like running on marbles.
"The most challenging thing is just the tire buildup, with the rubber buildup I mean, the way that the track fills in and it changes from the first lap all the way to lap 400," Kurt Busch said. "The rubber buildup is the hardest thing to keep track of at Dover."
So there is your primer for success at Dover, but like any unpredictable race in NASCAR, don't be surprised if this track throws out a few trick questions over the course of Sunday's next exam.