The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams got somewhat of a break the past two weeks because they didn’t have to do any traveling while racing in their Charlotte backyards.
They travel to Dover, Delaware for this weekend’s FedEx 400, which ends the first-half of the regular season.
With Carl Edwards winning last week’s Coca-Cola 600, there are now nine drivers with wins, which should be good enough to get them into the Chase when the lineup is set after race No. 26 at Richmond. That means there are seven Chase positions available with 14 races to go until the playoff field is set.
This is the second season of the current Chase format and you can see the drivers are applying several different strategies. For the drivers with wins already, they’re comfortable and trying to go all out for another victory. Their crews are trying radical strategies to make the car faster to get wins. If they fail, so what, they’re making the Chase anyway.
When Jimmie Johnson spun out and crashed into the inside wall Sunday night to finish 40th, he just shrugged his shoulders and said it was no big deal. Everyone who has a win right now has that luxury to be relaxed for the next 14 weeks because they’re in.
It’s those winless drivers who are stressing a little more right now. They know it’s hard enough to beat the likes of Kevin Harvick and Johnson on a weekly basis, so while they want to win, they also have to get as many points as possible for the chance that a few drivers will still gain entry into the Chase. Martin Truex Jr. has the second most points in the series, but is in 10th position for the Chase because of no wins. He should get in regardless, but then you have others who have been up and down, like Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne, that are still winless.
Jamie McMurray is having a great year so far in 11th place, but isn’t comfortable. Ryan Newman, Aric Alimirola and Paul Menard sit 14th-16th in points, but are nowhere near being comfortable. The top four drivers outside looking in are separated by 24 points – Clint Bowyer, Danica Patrick, Greg Biffle and A.J. Allmendinger.
Within the next 14 races, there are a couple that could serve as wild cards for smaller teams like last season when Allmendinger won on the road course at Watkins Glen and Almirola took Daytona. Neither of those drivers would have made the Chase without those wins. However, this week’s race at Dover doesn’t fit that criteria because it is usually won by an elite team. In most cases, that’s Jimmie Johnson.
In 29 career Dover starts, Johnson has won a track-record nine times on the high-banked 1-mile concrete paperclip. The track was built in 1969 and witnessed all the greats like Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt, but it’s Johnson who stands alone as the best all-time. He’s won three of the past six, including this race last season.
It’s because of that dominance that he should be considered the favorite this week and supplant Harvick, who has held that status at every non-plate track.
Gordon has to be thrilled to see Dover because he won there in the fall for the fifth time in his career. In 44 career starts, he’s had an 11.4 average finish. He should be feeling some confidence by finishing third at Bristol in April which was his best result of the year.
Although Bristol’s layout is only a half-mile, there are similarities to Dover because of the banking and concrete. Past results have shown those who have done well on one seem to succeed on the other.
The Bristol winner was Matt Kenseth and he should be expected to run well Sunday going for his third Dover win. The Joe Gibbs Racing stable has things figured out big time now with a win in the All-Star Race and in the Coca-Cola 600.
Denny Hamlin, Kenseth and Edwards all have wins now and JGR is looking for another one to try and get Kyle Busch in the Chase. Even though Busch missed the first 11 races of the season, NASCAR gave him an exception that if he wins a race and is within the top-30 in points, he can participate in the Chase. The No. 18 looked very fast last week and Dover has traditionally been a place Busch fares well at with two wins over his career.
Harvick has never won at Dover in 28 starts. Last season while in similar form to how he’s running this year, Harvick managed very average finishes of 13th and 17th between the two races. He did lead 184 laps at Bristol, but finished 38th. You never want to cross Harvick off your list of candidates to win, but Dover is a track where you might be okay leaving him off a betting equation.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, one of The Linemakers on SportingNews.com , and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Follow Micah on Twitter @MicahRoberts7 Contact Micah at [email protected].