Pretenders, contenders and potential winners as NASCAR's Chase moves to the high banks of Dover
Ted Nugent likely would refer to the third track of the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup as “the concrete jungle hell-zone.” And honestly, that’s exactly what Dover is — an oversized Bristol with corners akin to the white cliffs of the same name that fall away into the abyss, only to shoot cars up onto a straightaway with what feels like an off-camber turn. If there’s an issue on a restart, you might as well just undo the steering wheel and ride it out because with an inside wall just a couple of feet off the groove there is simply nowhere to escape the ensuing chaos.
While you digest that little nugget of optimism, let’s see how things shape up as we prepare to whack the first four drivers from championship contention before heading into the Challenger Round.
First off, let’s give credit where credit is due. Last week I predicted Joey Logano to win at New Hampshire, and guess what? Nailed it. Self high-five on that one for sure, but can I make it two in a row?
Absolutely. You know who else is looking to go two in a row? Jimmie Johnson at Dover.
For all of the hand-wringing over the alleged struggles of the No. 48 team this summer, let’s step back and see how it fared here in June. Johnson led 272 laps en route to his ninth career win at the Monster Mile; three of those have come in the series’ last five trips here. Dover is Johnson’s best track — and that’s saying something — first winning here during his rookie season of 2002, and tallying 18 top 10s over the last 12 years. This was also the first of what would have been four consecutive summer wins had they managed to match what their teammate did in the No. 88 Hendrick Chevrolet: take advantage of Brad Keselowski’s Mr. Fusion garbage disposal nose piece that captured a hot dog wrapper with a couple laps to go at Pocono.
Speaking of Keselowski, he finished second by less than a second to Johnson at Dover in June. Last weekend in Loudon, he showed he’s not afraid to take some chances and step over the edge now that the No. 2 team is locked into the next round. Keselowski may have been driving over his head, but it was that same mindset that was so evident during his 2012 campaign after a door-slamming duel with, of all people, Jimmie Johnson. It was then that he declared over the radio, “I refuse to lose this damn championship.” There’s nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing left to lose, and if he can win a race and potentially prevent one of the drivers in the 13th – 16th range in points from advancing, he will.
So the Penske pair of Keselowski and Logano, each armed with a Chase win, is good to go, along with the Hendrick trio of Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Kevin Harvick is also on his way to round two, as is Kyle Busch, who I thought would be out in the first round, as he and teammate Matt Kenseth did everything possible to ruin their chances last weekend. Even with the front-end stoved in and rear bumper braces dangling, Busch managed an eighth-place finish. If that’s what it takes to overcome any complaints of aero-push, then have the wrecker back into all the cars before the start of the race. Busch led 81 laps at Dover in June before being wrecked, and Kenseth cruised home third, so these two appear safe — and both are threats to win.
What can be said about the Roush Fenway flailing that hasn’t already? Things looked promising heading into the Chase, with supposed new-found speed, downforce and horsepower. But since it started … just blah. Carl Edwards sits eight points up over the elimination cut-off cars of Denny Hamlin and Greg Biffle. A meandering 16th-place finish this weekend won’t cut it for the latter, as Kurt Busch (15th in points) is not one to go quietly. And after seeing Aric Almirola’s championship-caliber rally from 11th to sixth in the final laps at New Hampshire (he’s 16th in points, 12 behind Edwards), the Richard Petty Motorsports Fords seem to have something the Roush cars haven’t had since 2008.
Kurt Busch had a solid car at New Hampshire but contact during a restart caused body damage that led to a blowout. To his credit, a blow up did not follow over the radio. He seemed unaffected by it, where in years past I’d be scrambling to YouTube to find the audio clip.
Meanwhile, Hamlin had that hang-dog look on his face as Joe Gibbs tried to explain to him why it took four laps to get his car to take on fuel. You’d think with the last six weeks off, Darian Grubb would have been able to check off every single box to ensure all was right on those cars before they rolled off. It wouldn’t be the first time the No. 11 team was felled by fuel woes in a championship fight (see: Phoenix, 2011).
Chase Hope Enders
Let’s get down to brass tacks here. Who will find themselves wallowing in a sea of unfathomable sorrow on Sunday? In no particular order of suckitude, the first drivers eliminated will be AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne.
Surprised? I’ll say. While Allmendinger sits an encouraging 10th at the moment, it is largely on the merit of not having anything horrible happen. His finishes of 13th and 17th kept him out of trouble, but haven’t banked him quite enough points. Biffle might be checking to see if the ink is dry on that new contract. It was at this track in June when the departure rumors really ramped up and the 3M Ford was seen dragging its deck lid back to the garage after getting squeezed by teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. He’s been largely invisible through two Chase races.
Newman was unable to deliver at what is arguably his best track last weekend, and although his three career Dover wins look impressive, the last came a decade ago courtesy of a small fuel-saving carburetor. The RCR cars just haven’t shown much speed lately, which is a shame since Talladega is the third track in the second round and Childress cars have a bit of a history there. Perhaps he can squeak by, but I’m not hopeful.
As for Kahne, what else needs to be said? In a season when he was penalized for speeding down pit road while attempting to avoid a car rocketing towards him, it’s fitting that it ends early to prevent any truly crushed dreams.
Against all odds, Kurt Busch muscles his way in with a top-5 performance, and while Hamlin’s team stubbed its toe in New Hampshire, the JGR brain trust will have all hands on deck to ensure that the car is a contender come Sunday. With that in mind, Kyle Busch appears in good standing, as well. Edwards and his 99 team need something good to go their way, and while “Concrete Carl” hasn’t had much to cheer about here since a fifth-place finish in 2012, Jimmy Fennig will see fit to get this team to the second round — if only by the slimmest of margins.
The biggest surprise is Aric Almirola, who is a blown engine away from two Chase top 10s. He and the No. 43 bunch don’t quite have the speed of the Penske cars, but they’re close. Remember, Almirola won his race this year at Daytona on the 30th anniversary of The King’s final triumph and win No. 200. Petty won two races in 1984, and win No. 199 came at Dover. Not saying Almirola will double down on nostalgia this weekend, but there’s some magic in those Petty Blue Fords this year — and a never-give-up-attitude by the driver.
Dover Winner: Matt Kenseth
Dover is a track that demands patience, persistence and racing the track first and the competition second. This is a race tailor-made for Kenseth, and the one that will propel him into the second round of the Chase.
Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff haven’t won a race this season, but they’ve been as steady as can be the last few months, despite the well-known TRD horsepower deficit. They’ve closed the gap a bit, but with as hard as it is to put down power at Dover, being a little low on the torque curve may not be such a bad thing.
The No. 20 team finished third here in June and Kenseth was always a top-5 terror at Dover during his days with Roush’s No. 17 team. Dover is also the site of Kenseth’s first Cup Series start, when he subbed for Bill Elliott in 1998 and finished sixth. After last week’s wreck at New Hampshire, the No. 20 team isn’t in a position to cruise, as it’s 40 points from first, but just 12 markers from 16th. Kenseth also finds himself just eight points ahead of the cut-off.
That said, there is an alternate version to the outcome of this race where one of the Ganassi cars of Jamie McMurray or rookie Kyle Larson hit paydirt. Both have been on fire since the Chase started with McMurray finishing ninth and fourth, while Larson has put his No. 42 in a position to win both races, logging third- and second-place showings (the youngster was 11th in his first Dover Cup start in the summer). My bet is both win a race before the year is up and Dover makes for an intriguing opportunity.
Follow Vito Pugliese on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.