Each week, Geoffrey Miller's "Five Things to Watch" will help you catch up on the biggest stories on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' upcoming race weekend. This week, the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup hits its first elimination race at Dover International Speedway. Jimmie Johnson's chance to shine, conservative race strategy, Joey Logano's contract extension and Kasey Kahne's season on a brink highlight the storylines heading into the AAA 500.
Dover will welcome Jimmie Johnson to the Chase spotlight
Jimmie Johnson’s social media channels have proudly staked a claim to Dover International Speedway this week. On Facebook and Twitter, they tout that Dover is just another Johnson abode.
They aren’t wrong.
It’s been seven years since Johnson failed to lead a lap at Dover, and he’s won there six times since 2009. Even the pace car is jealous of how often Johnson leads laps at the one-mile track.
And so, after a far-from-spotlight run in the first two races in the Chase, it won’t be surprising for Johnson to break out Sunday with a win that earns him advancement in the Chase and plenty of “Here comes Jimmie” stories.
It should be expected, really. That’s the kind of thing that just happens when Dover, Jimmie Johnson and the Chase are lumped together in the same weekend.
For most teams, conservative race strategy will pay off
Netting a win in the regular season meant automatic advancement to the NASCAR postseason, putting bold strategy in the forefront of every crew chief’s mind if the time was right. But now, in this survive-and-advance Chase process, conservative play calling seems like the best strategy to get past the first round.
That was on display last week at New Hampshire. Joey Logano won the race largely because he had fresher tires than many of competitors down the stretch — a fruit of risking lost track position on a four-tire pit stop. Kurt Busch lost out on at least six and possibly 10-14 points because his team gambled that a fender rub wouldn’t cut a tire.
The tire blew and Busch smacked the wall, finishing 25 laps down in 36th.
Sunday at Dover should largely be the same thing, if only considering averages that four of the 16 drivers eligible to advance will likely hit trouble during the race. You could argue, too, that the drivers that we can expect to struggle are already sitting toward the bottom of the Chase point standings — meaning those in the middle and top have even less to worry about.
Dover should be mostly about scoring safe points, and not maximum points. We’ll see what teams take that strategy — and those who risk boldly.
Maybe even too boldly.
Chase advancement scenarios for all 16 drivers
The majority of drivers in this edition of the Chase stand to leave Dover still alive in this NASCAR championship experiment. But after the tumultuous second half of last Sunday’s 303-lapper at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, many will feel on edge until the Dover checkered flag.
Fortunately, every driver has a way of guaranteeing advancement (Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano already have it locked up thanks to Chase race wins) to the Chase’s second round. Here are those scenarios, according to NASCAR:
• Kevin Harvick: Finish 34th or better; or 35th and at least one lap led; or 36th and most laps led
• Jimmie Johnson: 24th or better; or 25th and at least one lap led; or 26th and most laps led
• Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 21st or better; 22nd and at least one lap led; or 23rd and most laps led
• Jeff Gordon: 14th or better; 15th and at least one lap led; 16th and most laps led
• Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards: 2nd; or 3rd and most laps led
• AJ Allmendinger: 2nd
• Kahne Kahne: 2nd and at least one lap led
• Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola only control their own destiny by winning Sunday at Dover.
Kasey Kahne stands to lose the most with failed advance
There probably won’t be tears, but there might be some tossed driving gloves or a hastily disposed helmet when a driver realizes that his run in the 2014 Chase has come to an end. But beyond that fleeting, in-the-moment emotion, only a few drivers stand to lose much for not advancing in the Chase.
The top of that potential disappointment list would have to be Kasey Kahne.
Kahne, only in the Chase thanks to his last-minute win in the regular season’s next-to-last race, has started the NASCAR postseason in a way very similar to his underwhelming 2014 season as a whole. Kahne has just 52 points in the Chase, good for 11th best among Chase competitors and 17th best in the series as a whole.
Should Kahne fail to advance, his looming contract extension discussions with Hendrick Motorsports may take a hit. He’s only signed through next season in the No. 5 car and is already stuck in an environment as the lowest-performing Hendrick driver with Chase Elliott on the rise in Nationwide and other potential Hendrick targets — Kyle Larson, anyone? — looking more and more attractive to NASCAR’s New York Yankees.
Kahne, who has an average finish of 15.8 in his last five Dover races, guarantees a trip to the second round with a second-place finish.
Joey Logano contract extension sets up Penske Racing for long-term success
It’s been a damn good week for Joey Logano.
The New England native methodically picked off his competitors en route to last week’s win at New Hampshire and secured advancement to the Chase’s second round. Wednesday, his Penske Racing team announced that a new multi-year contract extension had been signed by the 24-year-old driver.
Oh, and the win helped earn him 22 cents off per gallon of gas Wednesday.
But even among all of the good for Logano, things were even better for Penske Racing. With its Sprint Cup driver lineup presumably set for the next several years, Logano and teammate Brad Keselowski have tremendous stability to continue building the team’s speed.
Logano, in his own right, has arguably shaped into one of the sport’s five best current drivers. Consider that dating to last summer — 45 starts — Logano has five wins, 18 top-5s and 28 top-10 finishes. He’s finished worse than 20th just seven times. Those top-5 and top-10 numbers are, percentage-wise, on par with Jimmie Johnson’s career average.
They are the type of numbers that we were told to expect when Logano emerged on the scene as a raw 18-year-old. And they are the type of numbers that will carry Logano’s career in Cup a long, long way.
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Photo by Action Sports, Inc.