Monster Mile to claim four victims after first round

Miles the Monster is hungry, and after 400 laps around Dover International Speedway on Sunday afternoon, four drivers will be eliminated from championship contention, the first round of the playoffs will come to an end and seven races will remain in the 2017 season.

WHAT: Apache Warrior 400 (400 miles, 400 laps. Stages of 120, 120 and 260 laps, respectively)
WHEN: Sunday, October 1, 2017. Green flag scheduled to fly at approximately 2:16 p.m. ET
WHERE: Dover International Speedway, one-mile concrete oval located in Dover, Delaware
FAVORITES: Martin Truex Jr. (9/4), Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson (13/4) & Jimmie Johnson (6/1)


LAST YEAR’S WINNER

Martin Truex Jr. dominated Dover and closed out the first round of last year’s playoffs, leading 187 laps in the Citizen Soldier 400. The win was the No. 78’s fourth of the 2016 season.

The win was MTJ’s first at his home track (even though the joke in the NASCAR garage nowadays is that MTJ has five home tracks) since 2007 with Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, which also happened to be his first career win in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.


THE FIELD

Martin Truex Jr. earned the pole for Sunday’s 400-lap affair by posting a lap of 160.664 mph (22.407 seconds) around the Monster Mile. The pole award was the Mayetta, N.J. native’s second of the season, 14th of his career and second at Dover International Speedway.

Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Matt Kenseth and Daniel Suarez rounded out the top five qualifiers, with Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick and Erik Jones completing the top 10. Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott will roll off 11th and 12th, respectively.

The other playoff drivers’ qualifying spots include Kurt Busch in 13th, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 15th, Brad Keselowski in 16th, Jimmie Johnson in 17th, Kasey Kahne in 21st, Austin Dillon in 23rd and Jamie McMurray in 26th.


FIRST ELIMINATION

Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon have some tight collars entering the unfriendly confines of Dover International Speedway this weekend, as they are currently below the cut line in terms of elimination when the first round of the playoffs concludes.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is currently in, but only because he holds the tiebreaker over Dillon. Jamie McMurray has a nine-point lead over 12th-place, and Kevin Harvick has a 25-point lead. Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney are up by 26 points at the moment as well.

Everybody else not locked in to the next round (Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin) have a healthy margin and could hypothetically afford a bad race on Sunday. But for anybody besides the four locked in, they’d obviously prefer a clean, top-15 run.

However, Kahne and Kurt Busch are, for all intents and purposes, in a must-win situation. Newman can still point his way in with slight help from some drivers in front of him and Dillon is literally right there, tied. But we’ve seen the monster devour some drivers’ title hopes before.

The one that comes to mind immediately is Jimmie Johnson in 2015. Yes, the seven-time champion and 11-time Dover winner. He had a faulty $15 part break on his No. 48 car, forcing him to head to the garage and finish in the 30’s. He wound up being eliminated.

But the other side of the coin lands sometimes, too. Kevin Harvick had to win in 2014 to keep his title hopes alive, and he did exactly that in dominating fashion. So what is going to happen? Heck if I know. The only one that knows is that menacing monster named Miles.


CAN ANYBODY BEAT TOYOTA?

So far, the 2017 playoffs have featured Martin Truex Jr.’s comeback domination at Chicagoland and Kyle Busch’s victory last weekend at New Hampshire. Both of them happen to drive Toyota’s. And if qualifying on Friday as well as the sentiment throughout the garage is any indication, that isn’t changing anytime soon.

Toyota claimed six of Sunday’s top 10 starting positions and four of the top five. Joe Gibbs Racing put all their cars in the top six and Furniture Row Racing put both their cars in the top 10. The four Toyota playoff drivers are in the top six of the standings and two are already locked into the Round of 12. And the other four have a big enough cushion that advancing is almost a certainty.

Are you betting against them to win the championship? If so, maybe it’s time to reevaluate.

Since Brad Keselowski’s comments at Chicago, insinuating that Toyota had an advantage and NASCAR should step in to level the playing field, they haven’t slowed down. I’m of the opinion that just because a certain manufacturer has worked harder, spent more money, cultivated more young talent, signed better drivers and done more homework than their competitors, they shouldn’t be punished. In fact, they should be rewarded. Right?

Well, according to most of NASCAR Nation, no, they shouldn’t be. Why? Because they’re Toyota. No other reasoning besides that. This sport goes through ebbs and flows every year with drivers, teams and manufacturers alike. It just so happens that the second half of this season has been all Toyota, all the time. Maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.


LET’S FOCUS ON THE RACE

I have to address the elephant in the room: the kneeling for the national anthem talk, controversy, whatever you want to call it, has made its way into the world of NASCAR.

It started on Sunday at New Hampshire, when team owners and Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Richard Childress had strong feelings regarding kneeling for the National Anthem.

“Get you a ride on a Greyhound bus when the national anthem is over,” Childress said, insinuating that anybody who worked for RCR that kneeled would be fired.

Petty had a similar stance: “Anybody that don’t stand up for that ought to be out of the country. Period. If they don’t appreciate where they’re at … what got them where they’re at? The United States.”

President Donald Trump’s tweet didn’t really help matters, although Dale Earnhardt Jr. tried to calm the waters after NASCAR issued a pretty meaningless statement, in my opinion.

My thoughts on this are relatively simple, and I’m going to be straight up, just like I was on Victory Lane this week. I vehemently disagree with Petty and Childress. Every American has a right to protest. In fact, this whole kneeling revolution came about  from Colin Kaepernick to combat racial injustices against African-Americans in the U.S. It had nothing to do with the flag. And it remains to have nothing to do with the red, white and blue.

Again, every American has a right to protest. And every American has a right to protest that protest. Arian Foster said that about one year ago. And it reigns true one year later.

But for one week, one race–heck, maybe even the rest of the season or the rest our lives–can we just enjoy the racing and not worry about all the outside noise? Or God forbid, have a constructive conversation about these issues in the country? Jokes aside, let’s enjoy NASCAR.


PREDICTION

Guys, I messed up again. On this week’s episode of Victory Lane, I forgot to include my prediction. But that’s what my weekly preview article is for, right? Right.

Kyle Larson is going to avenge his loss here earlier this season to Jimmie Johnson and his defeat to Matt Kenseth a couple years back and win his fourth race of the season and first of his career at the Monster Mile. He has three top fives and five top 10’s in his career at Dover to go along with an average finish of 8.2 (fourth-best) and a driver rating of 99.6 (fifth-best). He rolls off third on Sunday, but I think he gets five more playoff points and wins the whole shebang.

But don’t count out Jimmie Johnson. He’s going for his 12th career win at Dover (I know, it’s just absurd) and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team needs it. They haven’t shown that spark they usually do, that one that has given them seven championships. But if there’s any place that can re-ignite the flame or flip that proverbial switch for Johnson and company, it’s Dover.