Two down, one to go. Or is it the other way around? NASCAR finishes up the first round of its Sprint Cup Chase this Sunday at Dover, Delaware with its playoff field set for a cut down from 16 to 12. But there will be two more such downsizings over the new few months before the group is whittled down to the final four, a quartet that will square off in a winner-take-all battle down in Homestead for the series title.
Right now, a look at the point standings shows few surprises in jeopardy of missing the cut. Rookie Chris Buescher, the upset winner at Pocono wasn’t expected to do much with underdog Front Row Motorsports; in just two weeks, he’s fallen 60 points behind the leader and sits 30 behind the 12th-place cutoff. Bye-bye, Chris. Jamie McMurray, sitting 13th in points hasn’t even led a lap all season; he’s earned just a single top-5 finish in 28 races and appears unlikely to advance. Austin Dillon, after winning another pole this year, took a big step forward with Richard Childress Racing but was simply happy to slip inside this 16-driver field. He’s another one who, on paper seems ready to sign off after the first round.
Sounds like a yawner of a weekend then, right? The answer to that question depends on Tony Stewart. Lurking 11 points behind 12th-place Kyle Larson, the 45-year-old retiring at the end of this season has struggled through a 19.5 average finish in the first two playoff races. Stewart admitted this week the burden of being the veteran voice of the garage area, along with the frustration of an increased reliance on engineering – limiting a driver’s ability to fix a bad-handling race car – have indeed taken their toll after a brief midsummer surge back to contention. He’ll be more than happy to disappear on a few NASCAR weekends next year, leaving this Cup ownership gig for a bit to do some sprint car races outside the limelight.
But before you write this three-time champion off, finishing off the Chase bubble, just hold on a minute. Stewart, who made a ferocious comeback this year after missing the season’s first eight races, has won at Dover in the past with his No. 14 car. Did I mention Stewart’s teammate, Kevin Harvick, won the pole here this spring, led the most laps (117) and had the fastest car until circumstances and a late-race wreck took its toll? Let’s just say stranger things have happened than Stewart coming out of nowhere to take a miracle win.
And if he doesn’t? This event, last season saw one of the “locks” to make the next round, Jimmie Johnson, drop right out of the field due to a simple parts failure. There are still plenty of chances for Stewart to slip inside the top 12. Whether he makes it will be one of the top storylines in a suddenly rejuvenated Monster Mile of a racetrack out in Delaware.
2016 Citizen Soldier 400
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Dover International Speedway (Dover, Del.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Toyotas
Yes, it was Kevin Harvick who sliced through a final restart late to steal one from Matt Kenseth at Loudon. But Kenseth, who paired with Martin Truex Jr. to dominate the race, helped Toyotas lead a whopping 280 out of 300 laps. Kenseth enters Dover as the most recent winner of a Cup race there and his three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates look comfortably in position to make the Chase’s next round. If all four JGR cars plus their satellite team (Truex) make the 12-driver cutoff, well that’s a hefty percentage of championship talent that should prove hard to beat.
Who’s at the Back: Michael Annett
Dead last at New Hampshire after his steering broke, resulting in a trip into the outside wall, this second-year Cup driver is muddling through the ultimate sophomore slump. In 27 starts, Annett’s cracked the top 25 just once for an HScott Motorsports program that is housing future Stewart-Haas Racing driver Clint Bowyer as a teammate. The real question perhaps is should Annett even be racing at the Cup level next year? This sponsor-driver program may be better off taking a step down into NASCAR’s XFINITY Series to regroup.
Awful TV ratings continue to be a storyline inside NASCAR’s Chase. The first two events, posting a 1.5 and 1.6 have combined to be the worst start in terms of viewership since the playoff format was created in 2004. For comparison’s sake, FOX scored an 11.1 rating for their Week 3 single-header window run during part of the same timeframe.
NASCAR rules continue to be tinkered with regarding stripping a win from an offending team. The expanded list of penalties this week that will trigger an “encumbered finish” include incorrect ground clearance violations, failure to meet proper body height and an inability to meet minimum weight. These were added to the more obvious penalties of missing lugnuts or failing the Laser Inspection Station to the point it triggers a “major” chassis violation.
Ryan Reed will attempt to make his Sprint Cup debut later this month at Talladega. The rookie, bringing sponsorship from the American Diabetes Association, will bring back the No. 99 at Roush Fenway Racing most recently run by Carl Edwards.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Accidents we’ve seen in the first two Chase races involving more than one car. There’s been an average of just five cautions with two of those being for “debris” rather than a crash on the speedway.
Driver not eligible for the championship who’s scored a top-10 finish in the first two Chase races: Kasey Kahne.
Laps led by Kevin Harvick in a winning New Hampshire effort. It’s the fewest laps led for any of Harvick’s trips to Victory Lane since 2013.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Martin Truex Jr. (can be in the middle tier in some leagues) enters this race with something to prove after watching a Loudon victory slip away in the closing laps. Dover is Truex’s hometown track, the site of his first Cup victory and a place he desperately wants to pull a repeat. In five starts with Furniture Row Racing there he’s finished anywhere from sixth to 11th each time out; this spring, he led 47 laps before fading to ninth. A solid pick.
Jimmie Johnson wasn’t his typical Dover self this spring. Combine that with last fall’s disastrous parts failure and – gasp! – the six-time champ has an unthinkable two straight races here outside the top 20. That means your strategy can fall into one of two camps. You can believe in the old adage that tragedies come in threes, meaning Johnson is set to leave Dover on a wrecker or you can sit there and expect a return to reality.
What’s reality at Dover for Johnson? Ten career wins, a 9.6 career average finish and 3,003 laps led at the track. Oh, and about those finishes outside the top 20? Before those back-to-back disasters he had only two such poor results at Dover his entire career (27 starts). I think it’s safe to get back in with the No. 48 camp.
Kyle Larson seems to pop up in this section nearly every week. But he’s a solid choice Sunday, again for two reasons. One: Dover was the place Larson could have gotten his first career win this spring if the third-year driver wanted to bump Kenseth out of the way. Two: sitting 12th in points, Larson needs to perform in order to avoid a surge by Tony Stewart or other drivers in his rear-view mirror that could keep him from advancing in the Chase. After leading the charts in Friday’s practice, a solid sign for Sunday he’s in prime position to contend again.
See the intro re: Stewart and his chances at Dover. If you want stats to back up your selection how about a victory at the Monster Mile for him as recently as the spring of 2013.
Paul Menard, anyone? The quiet, mild-mannered driver from Richard Childress Racing competes with family money and has been mostly invisible this year on the racetrack. But Dover offers a rare opportunity; he was 11th in the spring and has slipped inside the top 20 in six of his last seven starts there. Don’t be afraid to pick him.
What Vegas Thinks
According to vegasinsider.com Kevin Harvick’s an early favorite to repeat his fall 2015 win at Dover. Currently earning 5/1 odds he’s got a healthy edge on both Martin Truex Jr. and Matt Kenseth; they’re posted at 7/1.
What I Think
Harvick. Johnson. Kenseth. All of them are big names you could easily see trouncing the competition at Dover. But I’m going to go with Kyle Larson. The third-year driver is the dark horse of this Chase field, was speedy there in the spring and remains eager to stamp his ticket into the next round.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)