NASCAR at 75: Dover's impact on NASCAR is felt throughout the garage
By Holly Cain
NASCAR Wire Service
Not only has this week’s venue, Dover (Del.) Motor Speedway been an iconic location for NASCAR racing for more than seven decades, it holds a special place in the celebration of the sport’s 75-year history.
As with so many longtime facilities on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, Dover’s very first race trophy went to NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty, who hoisted three of the first four and seven total in his 200-win, seven-championship career. But unlike so many of the sport’s other longtime stops on the schedule, the one-mile Dover facility was not the idea of – or built by – one of the more traditional track owners in NASCAR’s long history.
A local Delaware contractor, Melvin Joseph broke ground on the track in 1966 with the idea of hosting both horse racing and auto racing – and Dover Downs International Speedway, as it was first called, held its inaugural NASCAR race on July 6, 1969. Many people don’t realize Joseph’s initial construction used asphalt to cover the surface because Dover has become so famous for its concrete surface, which wasn’t laid until 1995. And it remains one of only two concrete tracks (also Bristol, Tenn.) on the current schedule.
Dover Motor Speedway – as the facility is known now since being acquired by longtime NASCAR track operator Speedway Motorsports Inc. – has been a pivotal and significant venue for racing. It’s location in Delaware is a bridge between the traditional Southern fanbase and the equally dedicated Northeastern part of the country. And the list of winners at “The Monster Mile” – as Dover is known - includes Hall of Fame name after Hall of Fame name.
David Pearson (1972-73), Rusty Wallace (1993-94) and Jeff Gordon (1995-96) – all NASCAR Hall of Famers - are the only competitors to earn three consecutive race victories at Dover. Seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson is the all-time winningest driver at the track with 11 trophies, including the final one of his illustrious 83-win career, in the 2017 spring race.
Dover, which plays host to the Würth 400 this Sunday (2 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) has been a significant and acclaimed stop on the schedule for its competitive flair – the high-banked turns (24-degree) and short straightaways (also banked at 9-degrees) – consistently producing memorable competition.
But Dover also holds an important and sentimental place in NASCAR history – one neither builder nor competitor would ever have envisioned. On Sept. 23, 2001, the NASCAR Cup Series returned to competition for the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and nearby Washington D.C. two weeks earlier.
Dover is home to a vital U.S. Air Force base and patriotism has always been a prominent theme at the track. So it was of no surprise that the entire crowd stood on its feet and waved American flags – giant and small – to cheer on NASCAR’s best for hours. The entire sport showing its immense support for the country.
And as it would happen on that September afternoon, one of NASCAR’s most beloved drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. took both the checkered flag and American Flag in a unique and powerful victory that transcended the sport of auto racing. Immediately after crossing the finish line, he asked his crew for an American flag and then made an emotional victory lap holding the flag outside his window.
“I’m glad I could be the guy to win the race so I could carry that American flag around and make them (the crowd) feel good," Earnhardt said in Dover Victory Lane.
In the following years, Earnhardt’s good friend Martin Truex Jr. would solidify his “favored son” status at the Monster Mile. The popular driver from nearby Mayetta, New Jersey considers Dover his “home track” and in June, 2007 earned the first NASCAR Cup Series victory of what would become a NASCAR Cup Series championship career for Truex – one of the few drivers from that area of the country.
“I view Dover as my hometown track, it’s closest to home, and if you could drive across the bay, it would be really close," said Truex, the driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota who has three career Dover wins, but is still looking to notch his first points-paying victory of the 2023 season.
“I’ve been going there a long time and it’s a place that means a lot to me, starting early in my Busch Series (now called Xfinity Series) career and doing some racing there in my dad’s car and getting my first Cup win there.
“It’s a special place for me and I love going there," he added. “It feels like home."
The uniqueness of Dover – both competitively with the high-banked concrete mile surface and geographically as one of the earliest venues outside NASCAR’s traditional Southern speedways – has made it a popular stop for driver and fan.
“It’s the only race track we go to where the sensation of speed is extremely high," Stewart-Haas Racing driver Aric Almirola said. “A lot of the race tracks we go to, we know we’re going fast but it doesn’t feel as fast in the race car after you adapt. But at Dover, you really feel like you’re riding a rollercoaster, and you get that sensation of speed. I love it."
Fellow Ford driver Austin Cindric agrees.
“Dover is probably one of my favorite tracks that we get to go to," the Team Penske driver Cindric said. “As far as making a lap, the demands of that place are really, really fun. … if I had the opportunity to give anyone an experience to drive a NASCAR car anywhere, it’d be Dover."