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CUP: Friday Dover Notebook

KENSETH THE MAN TO BEAT? — Whenever the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series comes to Dover International Speedway, Matt Kenseth is always one of the favorites. Kenseth, the 2003 series champion, has two victories and 12 top-five finishes in 26 starts at the Monster Mile. And he’s been especially good in recent years, scoring top fives in seven of the last eight races here, including a victory in last year’s FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks.

Kenseth, who comes into Sunday’s race 10 points behind his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle in the Sprint Cup points standings, thinks his team has room to improve despite all its success.

“I think we need to pick it up a little bit. It has been a track I really enjoyed and we’ve had some success and some bad runs too, usually from accidents,” said Kenseth. “I think it is a track we come into and have a lot of confidence and our cars have been really good here and I feel like in the past I have known what I wanted it to feel like and we have been able to achieve that more times than not.”

Kenseth, 12th in Friday’s first of two rounds of Cup practice, said the target at Dover remains six-time track winner Jimmie Johnson.

“I think the 48 (Johnson) has been the strongest car here the last few years, even last spring when we got the win he really dominated the race and we got him on pit road getting two tires,” said Kenseth. “I think we have some work to do to make it better and be dominant but we have been pretty respectable here.”

HAMLIN HOT — Denny Hamlin usually struggles at Dover International Speedway, but he put his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into the No. 2 sport behind only Mark Martin in Friday’s opening round of practice for the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks. Hamlin, one of only three drivers with two victories this season, likes where he and new crew chief Darian Grubb are at right now.

“I'd say we are 75 percent of where we were as far as our strength to the field in 2010 to right now,” Hamlin said. “I think we've identified the areas in which we need to improve that 25 percent. Everyone is going to work, everything is going well right now.”

And that has Hamlin optimistic about finally winning the championship that slipped out of his fingers two years ago. “There's really nothing in our outlook that looks grim in the sense of knowing that we're going to have good cars coming up here,” said Hamlin. “Each and every week we're going to have a better car going to the race track. Everything looks good and I feel like there's no reason why we can't have four or five wins before we even get to the Chase."

STEWART LOOKING FOR SPEED — Defending and three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart continues to battle inconsistency in his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. Stewart won two of the first five races of the year, but has finished outside the top 10 in seven of 12 races so far. The last four Sprint Cup points races have been a perfect microcosm of Stewart’s 2011 campaign: Third at Richmond, 24th at Talladega, third at Darlington, 25th at Charlotte. It’s been a frustrating experience.

“We have been pretty inconsistent,” Stewart said after running 21st in the opening round of practice for the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway. “We have had some really good runs and we have had some races that we are still scratching our heads about. We are working through different packages and trying to find the balance that I like. Steve (Addington, crew chief) and I are still just getting to a lot of these tracks for the first time. It’s that growing pain of getting somewhere with a new guy.”

EDWARDS BITTEN BY MONSTER — Carl Edwards has a fantastic record at Dover International Speedway, where his average finish of 7.333 is best of anyone in the field. One victory and seven top-five finishes in 15 starts here aren’t too shabby, either. But like a lot of veteran drivers, Edwards was humbled by his first visit to the Monster Mile as a rookie in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2003.

“The first time I came here was in a blank white No. 99 truck for Jack (Roush) and I had been practicing on my computer a lot and watched videos and worn out guys like Jeff Burton and Kurt (Bush) and Mark (Martin) and all those guys that had a lot of laps here like (Greg) Biffle,” said Edwards. “I came with a ton of confidence. I went out there and ran the first 20 laps in practice and we were just awesome. We were the fastest thing here and I thought, ‘Man, I’ve got this place, this isn’t so bad.’”

As things turned out, Edwards was irrationally exuberant, which he soon found out.

“I promptly ran that truck into the front straightaway wall so hard that I thought I broke my ribs,” said Edwards. “I hit it a ton. I destroyed the truck. Doug Richert, my crew chief, called me all sorts of things because it was really stupid to tear up that race truck.”

It got worse.

“Eight laps into the race with the backup truck we were screaming fast and I drove under Jason Leffler, hit the apron, wrecked Leffler and myself right into the wall,” said Edwards. “Eight laps in. That was a low point that season for me. I thought Jack was going to fire me. I thought it was over. I just didn’t respect this place and what it could do to you so quickly. My only word of caution to those guys is don’t get too big of a head at this place because it will get you.”

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.