By Jared Turner
On the heels of a wild and wacky Race No. 2 of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s top series heads to Dover International Speedway for the first of three Chase elimination races.
When the checkered flag waves on Sunday’s AAA 400 at the “Monster Mile,” 12 drivers will advance to the Chase Contender Round while four drivers will see their hopes of a championship this season come to a disappointing end.
Two drivers – Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth – have punched their proverbial tickets to the next round by virtue of their victories at Chicagoland and New Hampshire, respectively.
Twelve other drivers – Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Paul Menard – have a good chance to reach the next round with a reasonably solid outing at Dover.
Just two points separate 11th-place McMurray from 14th-place Menard, who actually has the same number of points as 13th-place Kyle Busch. Earnhardt Jr., the current bubble driver, is one point behind McMurray and one point ahead of Busch and Menard.
So whomever among these four drivers comes out on top at Dover is all but guaranteed to advance into the next round.
The task is considerably more difficult, however, for the final two Chase drivers – Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer. Both are so far removed from the bubble that their only realistic path to making the next round is going to Victory lane Sunday at the Monster Mile.
Considering that neither Harvick nor Bowyer has ever won at Dover, the odds are certainly stacked against both men advancing.
This is the Chase, however, and as the past two weeks have proven, just about anything can and will happen.
“The more of a cushion the better, but it can go away in a hurry,” Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Gordon, said after Sunday’s race at New Hampshire where multiple Chase drivers ran into trouble. “It happened to quite a few of those guys today.”
Gordon’s teammate, Johnson, also isn’t willing to take anything for granted despite sitting fifth among the 16 Chase drivers.
“You can’t put your guard down,” said Johnson, NASCAR’s all-time wins leader at Dover with 10 victories. “You’ve got to go in and race. Dover is a great track for us. A victory could be a huge shot in the arm for our team and really get some good momentum going for us.
“We’ll go there and give 100 percent and hopefully it’s a trophy; if not, hopefully it’s an advancement to the next round.”
Gene Haas, Harvick’s boss and the co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, isn’t willing to write the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion off. Although he certainly faces a steep climb, Harvick has a history of delivering clutch performances, including two in last year’s Chase when he scored a victory in the final race of the Eliminator Round, at Phoenix, along with the Championship Race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Both triumphs came in must-win situations.
“Well, he did it twice last year,” Haas said of Harvick. “When we get down, we’ll come back.”
Of course, to get a win at Dover, Harvick will have to beat Johnson – NASCAR’s resident king of the high-banked 1-mile track – along with the four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers, who collectively have won 10 of the past 13 races.
“I think as an organization we’re really strong right now,” said JGR’s Kenseth. “There’s always improvements to be made. You can always be doing better. No matter how good or bad you’re doing, you always look to improve. You always try to look over everything that’s going on and try to figure out how to do that better.”