2nd June 2012, 07:40 PM
Drivers prefer 400 miles at the Monster Mile
DOVER, Del. -- There are very few drivers in Sunday's FedEx 400 field who remember when Dover was a 500-mile marathon, and even fewer who miss spending four-plus hours battling with the Monster Mile.
For much of the Modern Era of NASCAR, Dover's 500-mile race was sandwiched between the Coca-Cola 600, 500 more miles at Pocono -- plus Michigan's 400-miler -- putting more emphasis on stamina and survival than speed.
"It was fun to do but it was a lot of miles," Bobby Labonte said. "It's different now. Today's 400 laps here is equivalent to what 500 laps used to be. Then, you could stretch during the race -- not necessarily relax, but it was a long enough race where you could ride and then everybody would get back to it.
"Now, 400 laps is like qualifying."
From 1971, when the 500-mile race distance was established for Dover, until 100 miles were lopped off in 1998, only two drivers were able to sweep both Charlotte and Dover. Bobby Allison did it in 1971 and Dale Earnhardt matched Allison's feat in 1993.
But Rusty Wallace may have been the best at surviving the gauntlet. He finished second to Jeff Gordon at Charlotte in 1994, then won Dover, Pocono and Michigan.
When Jeff Burton thinks back on when it took four-plus hours to complete 500 miles on the Monster Mile, the operative word that comes to his mind is "long."
"Here, that extra 100 miles seemed like a bigger difference than the extra 100 miles at Charlotte," Burton said. "It was always a really, really long day. Here and Rockingham, when they were 500-milers, were crazy long. And 500 here felt longer than the 600 at Charlotte, for sure."
One of the biggest differences, according to Labonte, is that two decades ago, you could count on attrition, both from a human and mechanical standpoint.
"You knew the last 100 miles here, people wouldn't fall out of the seat but some would," Labonte said. "And the cars would break. Nowadays, nobody does any of that. The intensity level has gone up a lot since five years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago."
The intensity level in today's racing is what Gordon believes makes the biggest difference when trying to compare eras. That, and major advances in technology -- like cooling systems and better hydration -- that keep the driver more comfortable in the car.
To him, 400 miles on the concrete at Dover is more demanding than 500 miles used to be two decades ago.
"If it was hot, then yeah, those races could certainly get long and be an issue, but you didn't drive the cars as hard, either," Gordon said. "You really just had to pace yourself. The car's limit was just so much less.
"A lot of times you were getting top-fives, top-10s, and sometimes even wins based on attrition, based on being patient, based on not over-driving the car. Now, if you don't push the car to the extreme and over-drive it, you're not going to find yourself in a position to win."
Sprint Cup has become a sprint race, even for races that take three or more hours to run. Labonte said it wasn't that long ago you could afford to let someone get by and know you'd have enough time to catch and pass that car later.
That's not the case anymore, Gordon said. Equipment rarely fails, and because cars are so equal, you can't afford to let up, even for a lap.
"We're not seeing as much attrition as we used to," Gordon said. "Because of that you don't pace yourself, you just push, push, and push as hard as you can. Then it's working your body a lot harder and harder. I think it all kind of balances itself out."
With next week's race at Pocono also shortened to 400 miles, this stretch of the schedule doesn't have the same degree of difficulty as it once did. And that's fine with Burton, who really doesn't pine for the old days at Dover.
"It's a better race at 400," Burton said. "I'm happier with 400."
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