The run-up to Dover was the most tumultuous week in Chase history.
The run-up to Dover was the most tumultuous week in Chase history. First, the car of New Hampshire winner Clint Bowyer failed inspection three days after the race. While Bowyer got to keep the win, he was docked 150 points. So in terms of the standings, Bowyer’s “win” was the equivalent of a 40th-place finish. Then points leader Denny Hamlin, the New Hampshire runner-up, took a dig at Richard Childress Racing, declaring that he’d had “the fastest legal car” at Loudon. That prompted a skirmish at Dover between Hamlin and Bowyer’s Richard Childress Racing teammate, Kevin Harvick. During practice. But after all the bluster, there was a sense of same ol’, same ol’ by the time Dover’s AAA 400 ended. As he’s done in so many other Chase races during his four-year reign as champion, Jimmie Johnson ruled. He won the pole, won the race and scored maximum points. Here’s how things shake out heading into Week 3.
Johnson, of course, leads the pack this week. He climbed from sixth to second in the standings while shaving his deficit from 92 points to 35. Just as important, he ended his three-month losing streak and silenced talk of the No. 48 team’s vulnerability. At least for now. But it was also a decent day for Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch. Busch held onto the third spot in the Chase standings while Hamlin shrugged off the controversy that had dogged him all weekend to finish ninth, his first top-10 Chase finish at Dover since 2006. (Third-place Joey Logano had the highest finish of any JGR entry.) Jeff Burton rebounded nicely from his fuel-starved 15th-place finish at New Hampshire to finish second and remain in the hunt.
There’s already considerable separation between the top 8 and the rest of the pack. Tony Stewart’s 21st-place finish at Dover made his fuel-mileage gamble at New Hampshire (he ran out of gas while leading at the white flag and finished 24th) look even more ill-advised in hindsight. At 10th in points, 162 points off the face, Stewart can afford no more missteps in the last eight races. Ditto for Greg Biffle and his Roush Fenway teammate Matt Kenseth, each of whom finished a lap down at Dover and now sit ninth and 11th, respectively, in points. Stewart and Biffle, at least, have reason for optimism this week. Not so Kenseth, whose average finish at Kansas Speedway in the Chase era is 20.7.
Richard Petty Motorsports driver Paul Menard finished seventh at Dover, his first top-10 since July. But the most impressive non-Chaser was Menard’s RPM teammate. It’s not often that A.J. Allmendinger can call a top-10 finish a disappointment, but that was the case last Sunday. After starting alongside Johnson and leading 143 laps, Allmendinger cut a tire and went a lap downbefore battling back. Given his recent strong runs (eighth at Richmond, 12th at New Hampshire) and decent performance history at several remaining Chase tracks, including Kansas, there’s reason to believe Allmendinger could spice up the title fight by scoring his first career Cup win before season’s end.
Wait till next year?
At least Bowyer could appeal the 150-point penalty he incurred after New Hampshire. There was no appealing his finish at Dover, which was unappealing indeed: three laps down, in 25th place, worst among Chasers.
The last word on Dover
Jimmie Johnson: “Yes, today was a big victory … but it’s not time to celebrate. If we take this week off and take it lightly, not prepare like we need to for Kansas, we’ll get beat. We can’t get beat. We’ve got to win races and keep this momentum going.”
ONE TO WATCH: Jeff Gordon
WHY HE MATTERS: He’s a two-time Kansas winner.
WHAT HE SAYS: “We’re holding on (in the Chase). That’s all we can do.”
WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: He backslid from fourth in the standings to eighth after finishing 11that Dover.
NEXT RACE Price Chopper 400, Kansas Speedway
THE LOWDOWN As the first of five “intermediate” tracks (from 1.5 to 2 miles) in the Chase, Kansas could reveal who’s genuinely hot and who’s genuinely not as the competition heats up. But this much is already certain: Jimmie Johnson runs well at intermediate tracks, including Kansas, where he has a win (in 2008) among his six top-10 finishes in eight career starts. Then again, Johnson also runs well at Dover and Martinsville and Phoenix and … it’s no wonder he’s won the Chase four straight times.
2009 Tony Stewart
2008 Jimmie Johnson
2007 Greg Biffle
2006 Tony Stewart
2005 Mark Martin
2004 Joe Nemechek
TRACK: Kansas Speedway (Kansas City, Kans.), 1.5-mile paved oval
RACE LENGTH: 267 laps, 400.5 miles
FIRST RACE: 2001
Quote of note
“How can a car pass pre- and post-race inspection and three days later get such a huge fine?” – New Hampshire winner Clint Bowyer on the 150-point penalty NASCAR assessed the next Wednesday.
Where to watch
Sunday’s pre-race show on ABC starts at noon Eastern, followed by the race at 1:00.
UP TO SPEED
Kansas City royal
The list of drivers who have averaged a top-five finish at Kansas during the Chase era is short. And if you’re a Greg Biffle fan, it’s pretty sweet. Even if you extend the criterion to top-10 finishes, Biffle remains in a class by himself (see chart). If Biffle is to establish himself as a contender rather than pretender this season, Sunday is the day to do so. Same goes for Tony Stewart, who has had two Chase wins at Kansas but has also logged finishes of 39th and 40th. For the rest of the contenders, Kansas is about survival – particularly Kyle Busch, whose average finish of 24.3 doesn’t even place him among the top 20.
Austin powers to a win
Austin Dillon, 20-year-old grandson of Sprint Cup team owner Richard Childress and a rookie in the NASCAR Camping World Truck series, scored his second win of the season last Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Dillon, who has just 22 career truck starts, won his first race at Iowa in July and is fourth in truck series points.
Kyle Busch’s victory in Saturday’s Dover 200 was his 11th Nationwide win of the season, a series record. Jimmie Johnson’s victory at Dover on Sunday was the 19th Chase win of his career, most of any driver since the format’s inception.
Average Chase-race finish at Kansas Speedway*
RANK DRIVER STARTS AVG. FINISH
1 Greg Biffle 6 4.0
2 Mark Martin 6 10.2
3 Jimmie Johnson 6 10.8
4 Clint Bowyer 4 11.0
5 Jeff Gordon 6 12.2
6 A.J. Allmendinger 2 13.0
7 Carl Edwards 6 13.3
8 Elliott Sadler 6 15.7
9 Kurt Busch 6 16.2
10 Tony Stewart 6 16.5
11 Kasey Kahne 6 16.7
12 Juan Pablo Montoya 3 17.3
13 Kevin Harvick 6 18.3
14 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 6 18.7
15 (tie) Jeff Burton 6 19.0
15 (tie) Denny Hamlin 5 19.0
17 David Reutimann 3 19.3
18 David Ragan 3 19.7
19 Matt Kenseth 6 20.7
20 Jamie McMurray 6 23.2
*Active, full-time drivers with at least 2 Kansas starts
Chase drivers in bold