Four drivers will see their championship dream come to an end Sunday at Dover International Speedway as the first round of NASCAR’s Playoffs (Round of 16) comes to a close.
Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne are going to have to run a great race this week while also having some luck go their way. They could take care of business by winning a race and automatically qualify for the next round, but with the way the balance of the series has shifted so dramatically to a few stout cars, that doesn’t seem likely.
Four drivers have already qualified by virtue of wins in the first two races of this round – Martin Truex Jr. at Chicagoland and Kyle Busch at New Hampshire, and two other drivers – Kyle Larson (2,125 points) and Brad Keselowski (2,106) – have clinched by accumulating enough points.
In the first Dover race of the season in early June, Larson finished second and Truex was third. They’ve been dominant like that almost everywhere. But a surprise top-five contender was Newman (2,043) in fourth-place. He could use another solid run like that and he’s only two points behind the 12th-place transfer position. Chase Elliott finished fifth, his third straight top-five at Dover in his first three Cup starts there. He’s sitting ninth in points (2,070).
The driver quietly sitting seventh in points is seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (2,076) and he’s trending poorly lately. What happened? His last top-five finish was 16 races ago when he captured his then-series-leading third win of the season. That win happened to be at Dover and it was his track record 11th win on the high-banked one-mile concrete layout. The champ has led a track-record 3,100 laps in 31 starts. That is domination at all stages of his career.
The only problem with taking him here is that his car is running like an also-ran, not a champion. He held an early edge to grab three early win, but I have no explanation for his recent demise other than everyone else got a lot better.
He’s not in Truex’s or Larson’s class, nor Kyle Busch’s, Denny Hamlin’s, Matt Kenseth’s or Keselowski’s, but still, his history there is hard to ignore.
Proof that Johnson had his car dialed in for Dover is that he won at Bristol five weeks earlier.
Even though Dover is twice the size of Bristol, the concrete, banking and grooves make it similar to the point that several teams use the same set-up and same exact chassis for each if having success. Kyle Busch won the most recent Bristol race last month and I think that’s the angle to first approach here. He’s won twice at Dover over his Cup career.
Newman finished sixth in that Bristol race and Erik Jones, who isn’t in the Playoffs, finished second and led the most laps (260). Jones might be a really good long shot to take a shot with if getting more than 25-to-1. Still, this will be a heavyweight battle between the elite teams.