The trouble came early and for many in NASCAR’s Chase at Dover Sunday. An early caution during a round of green flag pit stops trapped many drivers in the Chase including Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. leaving only eight cars on the lead lap. In the end only two of the Chase drivers caught up in that caution on lap 69, Martin Truex Jr. and Jeff Gordon, were able to make it back onto the lead lap. The only Chase drivers finishing on the lead lap were race winner Denny Hamlin, Gordon in second Jimmie Johnson in fourth and Truex in sixth. For the rest of the Chase field, Sunday was a day they’d rather forget.
Entering the day the top five were separated by 15 points; when the dust settled at Dover Sunday the top three left with a 16 point separation.
Brad Keselowski along with crew chief Paul Wolfe are looking more and more like the team to beat. With masterful strategy Keselowski was able to stage a turnaround at Dover, where he had never finished better than 12th, and come away with his fifth win of the season and his second in the last three races. BK hovered around the top five all race long and began saving fuel 30 laps prior to everyone else. And in the end while those around him pitted or coasted, Hamlin cruised to victory.
Jimmie Johnson certainly isn’t out of it. He led a total of 43 laps on the day. At the end fuel mileage forced Johnson to give up the lead and slow, but with so many cars a lap down, he was able to coast to a fourth place finish and leaves Dover only five points out of first.
Denny Hamlin has a lot to smile about despite his 8th place finish. At the track where many expected Hamlin to lose more ground, he was able to score his first pole and led 39 laps. Fuel mileage strategy ruined his chance for a win, but he leaves Dover in the same spot in the standings he came in with. He did lose 8 markers from first place but he is still very much in the hunt.
Clint Bowyer was one of the drivers who were trapped a lap down. While he was never able to get back onto the lead lap, he did finish 9th, moved up two spots to fourth in the standings and is still barely holding on to the group that can still contend for the title without help from others.
Tony Stewart wasn’t expecting to run well at Dover and he didn’t. Stewart struggled to a 20th place finish three laps down. Stewart lost a spot in the standings and leaves fifth, 32 points out of first. Stewart could still stage a comeback, but like the rest of the Chase field behind him will have to depend on some bad finishes from those in the top four.
Kasey Kahne looked strong early. He was inside the top ten and when the untimely caution came out early, he lost a lap but was able to make up ground. Late in the going however a problem with a front wheel hampered Kahne forcing him to pit with less than 50 laps to go. He would finish 15th, three laps down and lost a spot in the standings to sixth. He’s tied with Stewart, 32 points out of first and will need some help if he hopes to get back in it.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished outside the top 10 for the second week in a row. After being the driver to finish inside the top 10 in more races than any other this season, Earnhardt is starting to falter. He didn’t have any major issues Sunday he just didn’t have the speed to contend. He remains seventh in the standings 39 out of the lead but unless he can turn in a win and some good finishes, he’s out of the title Chase for this season.
Martin Truex Jr. was the only one of two drivers caught down a lap early to make it back onto the lead lap. Truex finished sixth the last car on the lead lap. He moved up two spots in the standings and is 42 points back. Based on his history this season and at the remaining tracks in the Chase, Truex still has very little hope of winning a title this season.
Kevin Harvick finished an unlucky 13th three laps down. He never had real shot at a win, never really contended and fell one spot to ninth in the standings. He’s 46 points out of first with no real hope of moving up much farther.
Jeff Gordon was finally able to move out of the bottom of the rankings with a second place finish and the only other driver to make it back on the lead lap after the early caution. He charged late and looked as though he might pull off a win. He came up one spot short in the end. He’s 48 points out of first and if anyone can stage a miraculous comeback it’s Gordon. However he will have to depend on disaster in front of him and at least three more wins to pull it off, a tall order.
Greg Biffle’s frustration became very public Sunday as he cursed his crew out on the radio after a pit stop miscue. Biffle’s frustration began on lap 194 when he noticed his Ford had a loose front tire. After pitting, Biffle was heard over the radio with the profanity laden tirade. He didn’t help his cause. Biffle came home 16th, three laps down and lost two spots in the standings. He’s 51 points back with no hope for a title this season.
Matt Kenseth’s title hopes came to a crashing end on lap 308. Something underneath the rear suspension of his Ford broke sending him to pit road. The crew thought they had the problem repaired but only a few laps later Kenseth spun and headed towards the garage. He fell one spot in the standings and at 72 points back can be assured that in his last season at Roush he won’t be winning a second title.
Dover proved to be a ‘separation Sunday’; a day when the Chase picture became clearer and the field tighter. Whether that remains the case after next Sunday’s wild card race at Talladega is anyone’s guess.
Chase standings after Dover
1 +1 Brad Keselowski 2142 Leader
2-1 Jimmie Johnson 2137 -5
3 — Denny Hamlin 2126 -16
4 +2 Clint Bowyer 2117 -25
5 -1 Tony Stewart 2110 -32
6 -1 Kasey Kahne 2110 -32
7 — Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2103 -39
8 +2 Martin Truex Jr. 2100 -42
9 -1 Kevin Harvick 2096 -46
10 +2 Jeff Gordon 2094 -48
11 -2 Greg Biffle 2091 -51
12 -1 Matt Kenseth 2070 -72
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