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Will Dover throw curve at NASCAR's Chase favorites?


1. Jimmie Johnson has to be the early favorite
There were two surprising events for Jimmie Johnson during the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Dover International Speedway in June. But it was the second one that bit harder.

First, Johnson turned in his worst qualifying performance at Dover since 2007 when his lap of 155.206 mph left him nearly a half-second off of Denny Hamlin’s pole-winning pace and starting the 400-mile race in 24th. It ultimately didn’t matter; Johnson took the lead just after the race’s halfway point.

What really cost Johnson at Dover in June wasn’t a poor pit stop or bad handling as the race wore on. Instead, Johnson left a win on the table when he was ruled to have jumped a late restart. Forced to pit for the penalty, Johnson finished a lap down in 17th. He vehemently disagreed with the penalty but his opposition didn’t sway NASCAR officials.

Despite the miss, Johnson still led 143 laps in June and looked ready to add win No. 8 at Dover to his ever-growing list of NASCAR achievements. Should he win Sunday, Johnson will take the title as winningest driver in Dover history, breaking a tie with Bobby Allison and Richard Petty.

Oh, and one other thing: the last two times Johnson won the fall race at Dover (2009 and 2010), he went on to win the championship.

2. Three straight wins for Kenseth not out of the question  
Considering Matt Kenseth a solid contender for Sunday’s race isn’t a surprise, either. He has, after all, won two straight to start this edition of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. It’s been a commanding performance.

But don’t think about Kenseth’s Dover chances solely in the mode of sustained momentum.

Kenseth had a fruitful streak at Dover during his time with Roush-Fenway Racing. He scored two wins, 13 top-5 and 18 top-10 finishes in 28 starts with the Ford team. That Kenseth has been good at Dover in the past is a bad omen for teams hoping his strong start will cool off, as Kenseth has seemingly picked up his game enough that even his poor tracks (like New Hampshire Motor Speedway) aren’t too poor anymore.

Making matters worse for those hoping to catch him in the point standings is knowing that Kenseth was leading the race at Dover in June when his engine blew. A mediocre run for the No. 20 Sunday would be the bigger surprise.

3. The steep fall of Denny Hamlin
While Kenseth and teammate Kyle Busch have been the sport’s high-flying duo at the most critical of times in the season, it has been plenty strange to see the third driver in the Joe Gibbs Racing camp conspicuously absent from the front of the field.  

Denny Hamlin, a Chase participant a year ago that had his season standings position dashed when he was forced to sit out several races due to injury in the spring, hasn’t had a top-10 finish since the calendar said June. What in the world is going on?

Judging by his lack of good finishes, it’s hard to tell if Hamlin even knows. He’s even struggled at tried-and-true tracks for the No. 11 like Richmond and New Hamsphire. You can bet the sleepless nights for crew chief Darian Grubb have been plentiful.

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Maybe it turns around Sunday for Hamlin. Dover started well for him in June. He sat on the pole and led 41 laps.

But just like the rest of his 2013 season, it didn’t pan out. Hamlin crashed and didn’t finish.

4. Who can we count out?NASCAR’s point system hates mulligans. It hates drivers who have a single bad race. And it hates drivers trying to make a comeback.

That’s why it took five wins from Tony Stewart in 2011 to score the championship despite the fact his worst finish was 25th during the 10-race Chase. And that’s why after just two races there are already several drivers who have basically been eliminated from contention with finishes no worse than mediocre.

Who is on that list? Start from the bottom. Kasey Kahne is 71 points out after his New Hampshire crash and doesn’t have a fighting chance to make up nearly two races worth of points in the final eight events. Joey Logano (-69) knew when his engine blew at Chicagoland that his title hopes were going to be brief. Dale Earnhardt Jr. talked this week about being close to a win (he’s winless in 2013) but even that wouldn’t do much for his 62-point deficit.

Next we get to those drivers on the edge of competition and in desperate need of a three-car crash at Dover taking out Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Johnson. Those include Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer, and based on the recurring bad luck we’ve seen from Jeff Gordon all year, he’s on the list, too.

Counting Kurt Busch out makes sense because that team seems too unreliable for a title shot, and doing the same for Greg Biffle seems plausible because he’s run in top 5 with little regularity all season.

That leaves us with Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards as the main contenders to Johnson, Busch and Kenseth. Things may change, sure, but this is a five-man championship battle — optimistically — right now.

5. Fuel mileage race repeat at Dover?Brad Keselowski fired the first shot of the 2012 Chase with his unexpected win at Chicagoland Speedway in the opener. He turned his battle serious by scoring the win in the third race of last season’s title fight at Dover.

But Keselowski was hardly dominant at Dover last fall. That title fell to Kyle Busch, as the No. 18 lead a whopping 302 laps of the 400-lap race and looked like he was going to cruise to victory. But the race, like so many last season, played out in a fashion befitting fuel mileage gamblers.

That’s how Jeff Gordon finished second and Mark Martin third. Busch wound up seventh, one lap down.

Guessing how Sunday’s race will play out is never possible, but there’s a pretty decent chance it will end on a longer green flag run. The last 12 events at Dover have averaged the final caution flag waving with 62 laps to go.

A late-race shakeup like last season could be just what some of the outside-looking-in drivers need to boost their title hopes. Don’t be surprised if a few gamble in hopes of that happening.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter:@GeoffreyMiller