Even though the first two races of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup were held on two totally different tracks – one at Chicago’s fast 1.5-mile track and the other at New Hampshire’s flat 1-mile layout, the results were the same.
The Joe Gibbs drivers of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch finished 1-2. Tony Stewart is the only driver to win the first two races of the Chase in 2011, and he came away with the Championship. Now with Kenseth having a 14-point lead with eight races remaining, he looks like the runaway favorite to win his second Cup title.
But there are still eight races remaining and a lot can happen over that span, especially considering he hasn’t put too much distance between him and his closest competitors, Busch and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
While Kenseth has got the bonus points for winning the past two, Busch and Johnson have captured top-5 finishes. Busch is only 14-points behind and Johnson is only 18 back as the series rolls into Dover, Delaware, for this week’s race.
Dover could be a major equalizer for Kenseth’s closest competitors, especially if a race is run similar to one ran there in June. Kenseth blew an engine and ended up finishing 40th while Kyle Busch led the most laps (150) and Johnson led the second-most (143).
No one has been better at Dover than Johnson since he came onto the scene as a rookie in 2002, when he swept the season there. Now that’s a way to come into a series and mark your territory! Altogether, he has five wins with the last coming in the spring of 2012. It appears his string of bad luck that he experienced heading into the Chase is over after two solid finishes.
Kyle Busch has taken a similar liking to Dover over his career that includes two wins, two runner-ups as a rookie in 2005 and four other top-5’s in 17 starts. One of the reasons to favor Busch here is because of how well he consistently runs at Bristol.
Dover has a 1-mile high banked layout – completely different from the flat 1-mile layout of New Hampshire last week, and although Bristol is a half-mile track, the banking between the two require similar set-ups and drivers who do well at one seem to fare well at the other.
If we do put a lot of weight into what happened at the last Bristol race in late August, then that’s bad news for Busch and Johnson because it was one of the seven races won on the season by Kenseth.
Prior to his 40th-place finish at Dover earlier this season, and a 35th last fall, Kenseth had been a money player at Dover. He grabbed wins there in 2006 and 2011 and at one point, he went on a run from 2008-12 where he finished fifth or better in eight of nine starts.
Needless to say, Kenseth will again be hard to topple, and his engine problems experienced at Dover earlier look to be a thing from the past. That won’t re-occur after extensive testing by Toyota for this very moment to be perfect in the Chase. Two wins in two Chase races doesn’t get any more perfect.
But three straight wins? That’s where the dilemma comes in.
Kenseth’s team looks far better than everyone else, but the law of averages have to come into play sometime, don’t they? There are 42 other drivers out there with traps everywhere from wrecks, debris on the track or bad tires that can slow a great car down.
If looking to side with the driver who won at Dover, you’re out of luck because Tony Stewart is on the disabled list and Mark Martin will drive the No. 14 car again. However, a nice longshot to win might be Juan Pablo Montoya who finished second in that race. Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski also fared well with top-5 finishes.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Follow Micah on Twitter @MicahRoberts7. Contact Micah at [email protected].