When was the last time a driver won a Cup race on sheer guts? Perhaps Ricky Rudd at the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville in 1998, when he won despite losing power steering and being physically so worn out he could not even stand up in victory lane.
Matt Kenseth's Mason-Dixon 400 win didn't have the physical pain of that 1998 race but it's been a very long time since a driver had to fight that hard to win a Dover race. The final 20 laps became a stunning showdown as Kyle Larson, winless as a still-young gun, challenged Kenseth, in a clearly weaker car than Larson or that of Chase Elliott, this despite officially leading the final 47 laps. Several times Larson stormed nose to nose with Kenseth but the low groove became like what Bristol showcased with little grip.
In 2006 Matt Kenseth squared off in the final eighteen laps in a stunning side-by-side fight with Jeff Burton
This was the first time outside of Talladega that a Cup race saw a battle for the lead that lived up to Cup Racing's competitive legacy, and it was the most exciting Dover showdown since Jeff Burton waged an epic side-by-side fight with - irony of ironies today - Matt Kenseth.
Kyle Larson's runner-up finish is a needed boost for a team that has struggled to post strong finishes or even lead laps - this was only the second race all year Larson led. Larson has been on the "next first winner" list long enough to be gathering some cobwebs; now he has to build on this.
The eye-popping quality of the fight for the lead illustrates the highs and lows of Dover history, especially as a concrete track. From its 1969 debut Dover Downs - built for auto racing and horse racing - has always been about endurance, and in the mid-1970s became known for comeback wins - in the 1975 Delaware 500 Richard Petty broke a tie rod with 150 laps to go but erased a six-lap deficit for the win; the next year Cale Yarborough overcame a lost lap on a pit penalty, made that up, then lost two laps with a loose coil wire; he erased that gap under green to overpower the Delaware 500; the ensuing May almost the same thing happened, as Cale was blackflagged for a loose bumper, then suffered another electrical problem, and from four laps down he stormed to the lead, slugged it out side by side with David Pearson for some ten straight laps, and won going away.
Spirited racing for first was no unknown at The Monster Mile, coming in Petty's 1979 Delaware 500 win over Donnie Allison and Cale, in Bobby Allison's Mason-Dixon 500 win over Darrell Waltrip in 1983, and Rusty Wallace over Ernie Irvan in the 1994 Mason-Dixon 500.
Dover in 1996 and 1999 saw spirited battles for the lead
Dover converted to concrete in 1995 after years of struggle with asphalt. The competitiveness of the racing became more uneven with concrete but some spirited battles continued, notably in the 1996 Delaware 500 that was highlighted by numerous wrecks and numerous driver/crew chief brawls. The 1999 Delaware race was only 400 miles, the races shortened in 1997, and it came during a run late that season where Goodyear's tire was changed and became strikingly more raceable.
Such quality of competition has been difficult to come by in general and for Dover to see a spirited battle for the lead again is encouraging overall.
The reason for the switch to 400 miles was because 500 milers were lasting over four fours. So much for time saved as this 2016 Mason-Dixon 400 lasted some four hours. The big melee when Jimmie Johnson's transmission gacked on everyone ruined the day for the expected plethora of contenders and pretenders. It also added more irony to Kenseth's win, as JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards were nowhere close to the win due to separate crashes. It was also another lousy day for Dale Earnhardt Jr. even as Hendrick teammates Elliott and Kasey Kahne posted superb finishes.
Kevin Harvick won the pole by default and once again lived up to his reputation for frontrunning without sealing the deal, leading 117 laps and getting into the late melee and having fifteenth to show for it.
For some guys it doesn't pay to get out of bed - Aric Almirola made up two laps and had nothing but another wrecked racecar (his second in three races and his third DNF in the last seven) and a broken finger for his day - and the broken finger is a fitting symbol of what looks to be a lost year for him. Martin Truex had it better with a top-ten and two straight races going for the lead, so it would seem a corner has been turned with the #78. Trevor Bayne finished in the top-ten as well and it was his third in the last five races.
So it goes with the All-Star Race and yet another format change set to hit on Saturday - perhaps it can defy expectations the way Dover did.