By Jared Turner
It’s elimination time. With two races down and one to go in the opening round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, the field of title contenders will shrink from 16 to 12 by the conclusion of Sunday’s Citizen Soldier 400 at Dover International Speedway.
Two drivers – Martin Truex Jr. (Chicagoland) and Kevin Harvick (New Hampshire) – have already punched their proverbial tickets to the Round of 12 by going to Victory Lane the past two weekends, respectively.
Two other drivers – Brad Keselowski and reigning Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch – are meanwhile all but assured of advancing based on their position in the standings.
But for the other 12 Chase drivers heading to the Monster Mile this weekend, the pressure to make something big happen or at least avoid a costly mistake couldn’t be much more intense.
Just ask Chris Buescher, the rookie driver who is in last place among the 16 Chase drivers. To qualify for the Round of 12, Buescher has only one real option – win.
“Yeah, that’s pretty much our situation,” Buescher said. “Dover is a really good racetrack. I like that place a lot. We’ll go there and see what we can do to get a win and try to move on to the second round of the Chase.”
In a better yet still precarious position heading to Dover is third-year Sprint Cup driver Austin Dillon, who is another one of the four drivers presently sitting on the wrong side of the Chase bubble. Dillon and Jamie McMurray are tied for 13th in the standings, both five points in arrears of Kyle Larson who holds the final transfer spot. Positioned six points behind Dillon and McMurray is three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, who is 19 ahead of Buescher.
“A bunch of them guys are just right there,” Dillon said of the points situation. “Now we go to Dover and we’ve given ourselves a shot. We just got to go run good there; got something new that we think is going to help us there. I’m looking forward to it.”
Harvick believes that Stewart – his good friend and boss – also has a chance to keep his title hopes alive.
“Well, everybody bet against Tony to even be in the Chase, so I think as you look at Dover, he can go to any racetrack and perform,” Harvick said. “He can go to any racetrack and win. He’s Tony Stewart. I wouldn’t bet against him. I don’t know what his circumstances and scenario are going into Dover, but we’ll do everything we can to help him get to the point where he needs to be to try to move on.”
While Stewart, Dillon and others head to Dover understandably anxious, Harvick is among the few with no such concerns. The 2014 Sprint Cup champion will certainly take his present situation over one year ago when he arrived at Dover needing to win the race to remain championship-eligible.
“Oh, it’s definitely going to be nice,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said. “One of our main goals this year was to not stretch ourselves out so bad. I feel like the performance of the car and the things that we’re doing are good enough to be competitive, and we just need to not make mistakes and go from there.”
Keselowski likewise is enjoying the fact that, at least for a week, he doesn’t have to sweat points.
“It feels good to go to Dover and be able to sleep easy knowing that if you have a part failure or get caught up in a wreck or any of those silly things that can happen that aren’t you fault, you don’t have to worry about them,” the Team Penske driver said.