Pressure. That’s what every driver besides Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, who have already won in the opening round of the Chase, giving them automatic transfer bids into the next round, are feeling heading into this weekend’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway. Their whole season comes down to this.
Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Paul Menard, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer will be trying to stay in the top twelve or work their way into the top twelve. Everybody above them seems relatively safe to advance. These seven drivers are vying for a spot into the next round, but for four of them, when the checkered flag flies at the Monster Mile, their hopes of a championship will be toast.
Clint Bowyer (16th) had his penalty upheld, and sits as a long shot to advance. The results and performance of his No. 15 team just haven’t been enough this season. But while we are on the topic of Bowyer, a lot of silly season news took place this week.
Tony Stewart announced that he will retire from Sprint Cup competition following the 2016 season, saying the main reason to come back for another full season was for the fans. After 2016. Bowyer will take over the No. 14 car for Stewart-Haas Racing, reuniting him with former RCR teammate Harvick. For next year, Bowyer will pilot the No. 51 Chevrolet for HScott Motorsports in a “gap year” for lack of a better term.
In other silly season news, Elliott Sadler will switch teams from JGR to JRM in the Xfinity Series, bringing One Main Financial as his primary sponsorship along with him.
But back to the Chase: Harvick (15th) is 25 points back of 12th place. He dominated last weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, leading over 210 of the 300 laps and he seemed like he was going to respond yet again in the face of adversity. However, his No. 4 Ditech Chevrolet ran out of fuel with two laps remaining and he finished 21st, putting the defending champion in a win or be eliminated scenario this weekend at Dover, a track where he has never won in the Sprint Cup Series.
But Harvick and his team aren’t phased by the pressure, saying he and his team “like these situations” and will be a factor in Sunday’s race. He led final practice before Mother Nature shortened it, as Hurricane Joaquin is in the Dover, Delaware area and messed with track activities this week. Qualifying was cancelled, meaning Kenseth will start on the pole and the rest of the field will start based on their position in the points standings.
As there are almost every week in NASCAR, storylines are in abundance. After Brad Keselowski publicly criticized NASCAR for penalizing him for jumping the restart last weekend at NH, but not passing the leader, NASCAR doubled the restart zone from 70 to 140 feet. The drivers applauded the decision, because it gives the leader more discretion as to where he wants to accelerate, and therefore, officially restart the race.
Another storyline revolves around somebody who started off the season with a bang, but in the wrong way: Kyle Busch. He and the No. 18 team are infamous for performing exceptionally well in the regular season, but when the Chase comes, for whatever reason, they hit some bad luck, falter and cannot win and get far. All eyes will be on Busch, as the other three JGR cars are virtual locks to make it to the next round, seeing as it is that two have already clinched.
What about Jimmie Johnson? I mean, he’s only won ten times at Dover, most in track history. And he won there in the spring. He kind of owns this place. JJ has Dover, Harvick has Phoenix, the Earnhardt’s have Talladega, you get the point. Johnson has to be among the favorites to find victory lane Sunday. Especially considering if he does, he would most likely eliminate one of his biggest competitors, Harvick, as he tries to win his seventh championship to tie Dale Sr. & The King.
With that being said, I’m putting my money on Harvick to win. Although he hasn’t won since Las Vegas back in the spring, he has dominated the last three races at Dover. If it weren’t for a valve stem popping off and puncturing a tire for two of those races and a late race restart in the Spring (finished second to Johnson), Harvick would’ve already found victory lane and tamed the monster.
But he hasn’t. And that is the bottom line. And Harvick and his team know that.
He hasn’t been able to close lately. Whether it’s late race strategy, bad luck, or anything in between, the man nicknamed “The Closer” hasn’t lived up to his name. But he did last year when he had one race to win to survive. And he did exactly that, twice.
I think Happy Harvick will win and advance. I also think that Bowyer, Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray and Jeff Gordon will be eliminated. 2:30 pm, NBCSN. Be there!