By Jared Turner
For four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers, Sunday’s elimination race at Dover International Speedway is little more than a tune-up for the next round of the playoffs. That’s because Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski are moving on to the Round of 12 no matter what happens.
However, for the 12 drivers battling it out for the remaining eight positions in the Round 12, it’s game on. That’s particularly true for Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne, who are saddled 15th and 16th, respectively, among the 16 championship-eligible drivers.
To reach the Round of 12, Kurt Busch and Kahne in all probability need to win the race, which automatically guarantees their advancement. Without a win, the points hole each has dug is probably going to be too much to overcome at Dover.
“It’s all-in,” said Kurt Busch, who is 17 points behind bubble driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 12th. “We’ll go there with everything we’ve got like we have been. We’ve got to find the setup that will make that car cut, that will make it go through the center of the corner, and carry that speed on exit and give it our best.”
Kahne, sitting four points behind Kurt Busch, also knows the magnitude of the challenge that awaits this weekend at the high-banked, 1-mile track known as the Monster Mile. But Kahne and Busch aren’t the only drivers feeling the pressure. Also on the outside of the 12-driver cutoff looking in are 14th-place Ryan Newman (one point behind bubble driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) and 13th-place Austin Dillon, who actually has the same number of points as Stenhouse but currently would miss the transfer spot on the basis of a tiebreaker.
How does Dillon plan to approach Sunday’s high-stakes elimination showdown?
“Just have a good race,” the Richard Childress Racing driver said. “We’ve got to go get ‘em next week and have a good race, and we will see where we end up.”
Given his volatile position in the standings, Stenhouse, too, has virtually no margin for error — at least as far as how he fares at Dover in relation to Dillon and Newman, who are both breathing down his proverbial neck.
However, after moving from outside the top 12 to inside the top 12 with last Sunday’s race at New Hampshire, Stenhouse is a lot more optimistic about his chances of advancing.
“It makes you feel good,” Stenhouse said after the New Hampshire race. We were fast at Dover (in the spring), but we did blow a right-front (tire) at Dover, so we have to make sure we don’t make any mistakes (and) bring another fast car like we did last time, and see if we can gain a few more (positions).”
While the 12 drivers yet to clinch a berth in the next round sweat it out at Dover, the four who’ve already punched their ticket to the Round of 12 can breathe somewhat easily. For them, the goal this weekend is simple: just win — whether it be the race, the first two stages, or all of the above.
“I think the biggest thing for us is to just keep focusing on what we’ve done all year long, just keep trying to go out there and run hard, run smooth and be good at what we do,” said Kyle Busch, last Sunday’s winner at Loudon. “Obviously fast race cars help us being able to stay out front. We’ve got a good pit crew.
“We’re just trying to collect stage points, go out there and race as hard as we can, get stage wins, get race wins, and do what we can in order to keep padding that cushion that we have for the start of every round.”