The concrete Monster Mile at Dover once again lashed out at the drivers in the Nextel Cup Series circuit, taking a bite out of some and taking it on the chin from others. Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne were two of the Monster’s biggest victims this weekend. With finishes of 40th and 38th respectively, they are certainly licking their wounds and are down and possibly out of the Chase fight just two weeks in.
The concrete beast also delivered shots to Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., leaving both drivers outside the top 20 at the end of the day. But then there was the driver who conquered them all, Jeff Burton. Not only did Burton get the best of Dover and the competition, he broke his winless drought and takes the points lead into Kansas next week. So after a grueling 400 laps at Dover, which Chase contenders are still hot on the trail of the championship and which ones are chilling out in the back? Read this week’s Who’s Hot/Who’s Not to find out.
Burton: Burton’s win on Sunday was big on many levels. It ended his 175-race winless streak and gave him the points lead heading into Kansas, the first time he’s held it since 1999. But most importantly, it gives the team a boost in confidence and at least temporarily shows that they won’t always fade back in the closing laps. The momentum, not only from the win but from his second top-10 finish in the Chase, will be important for the team to carry over to the upcoming week. Kansas is a track that Burton hasn’t quite got a grasp on; with an average finish of 19.2, he’s still looking for his first top 10 there.
Jeff Gordon: Gordon may have limped his way into the Chase, but he’s not limping around anymore. Back to back third-place finishes have him up to second in the standings, only six points behind Burton. He may very well be the next driver to take the top spot in the Chase considering his track record at Kansas. He’s a two-time winner there and has never finished lower than 13th. At least for right now, the drive for five is very much alive.
Matt Kenseth: You know you have a strong car and team when you get so upset about a 10th-place finish. Kenseth dominated at Dover, leading over half of the laps, but in the end ran out of fuel on the last lap after he tried desperately to hold off a hard-charging Burton. He now sits third in the standings, 18 behind Burton going into Kansas. In five races there, he’s been hot and cold, recording two top 10s along with two finishes of 30th or worse. But given this team’s momentum as of late, I see them running well and don’t see them running the fuel mileage as close this week.
Denny Hamlin: The young rookie is one of only four drivers to have posted top 10s in both races in the Chase, so much for the pressure being too much. At Dover he was physically wiped out at the end of the day but still managed to end the day in ninth place. Hamlin has been quietly consistent this season, but Kansas might pose a bit of a challenge. The intermediate tracks have been good for Hamlin, but in his first time out at Kansas last year he could only muster a 32nd-place finish. But times have changed and Hamlin should be able to keep pace another week.
Mark Martin: Martin was one of the victims of an ill-timed caution flag that came out just after he made a green-flag pit stop, pinning the veteran one lap down. He wasn’t able to make up the lap but still managed to turn in a 14th-place finish. It was a solid run, but certainly not the type of finish most expected from him at Dover. He still sits sixth in the standings and is the defending race winner at Kansas. He needs a good run there. He’s failed to crack the top 10 in any Chase race so far and top 15s will only keep him in the game so long.
Harvick: Harvick saw his winning streak blow up along with his motor at Dover, dropping him from first to fifth in the standings after a 32nd-place finish. Just 34 laps shy of the end of the race; he recorded his first DNF of the season in either the Cup or Busch series. There’s no doubt the poor finish hurt, but it hasn’t taken him out of the running. He currently is just 75 points out of first. But Kansas could be a wildcard for Harvick. In five races there he has only one top 10 and has failed to finish in the top 20 the last two times.
Jimmie Johnson: Johnson rebounded from his disastrous start to the Chase at New Hampshire with a 13th-place run at Dover on Sunday. He had a good car, but got down a lap early by pitting early and, after he made that up, was pinned down another lap when he made a green-flag stop just before the caution came out. Johnson inched up one place in the standings to eighth, but still trails Burton by 136. Other than a crash in 2004, Kansas has been a track where Johnson can count on a top-10 finish. He’ll need that or better to keep his Chase hopes alive another week.
Earnhardt Jr.: Sunday was a frustrating day for Junior, as he dealt with tire issues after starting off the day strong. After climbing into the top five early, he suffered a flat tire and went down two laps to the leaders. At the end of the day, he was three laps down and finished in the 21st position. That was good enough to hold onto seventh in the standings, but with no top 10s in the Chase so far the pressure might start to mount on the Bud team.
Kansas hasn’t been the best track for Junior, but the tracks after that on the schedule are places where he has run strong. If he can make it through Kansas without a problem, he’ll remain in contention for the Chase.
Kahne: The fat lady isn’t singing in the No. 9 team pit, but she’s clearing her pipes. A wreck with Tony Stewart early in the race forced Kahne behind the wall and possibly out of Chase contention. He rejoined the race 54 laps down and gained a few positions through attrition and ended the day 38th. He ran so strong to make the Chase, it seems like the air has fallen out of the sails early on. Kahne has run well at the intermediate tracks this year, so he go from no chance, to a slim chance at the championship with a good run this weekend.
Busch: “We’re done.” That’s what Busch said following his early exit from Sunday’s race at Dover. And after an engine failure that put him back to a 40th-place finish, his second straight DNF of the Chase, that about sums it up. Currently last in the standings, Busch is looking at a 224-point deficit. He’s had decent cars but no luck. He’ll need to pass that bad luck off to his competitors if he wants any chance to win the title at all. Looking at his record at Kansas, finishes of 37th and 21st, it doesn’t look like this week gives him a good shot at making up any ground.
The third leg of the Chase hits the wide-open plains of Kansas this week. Can Burton harness the momentum from his Dover win and go back to back this week? Or will teammate Harvick resume his winning ways? Will drivers like Busch, Johnson and Kahne be able to make up any ground? Can Gordon clinch his fifth title by finishing third in every race? We will just have to wait until next week to find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Chase.
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