Sunday’s Sprint Cup contest at Dover served as the first Chase elimination inside NASCAR’s ten-race playoff. That means we had to say goodbye to four of the 16 drivers who, just a few short weeks ago believed they were the favorites to hold up the championship trophy in Homestead.
As the Monster Mile showed us, despite a clean race Sunday holding on to a spot in that postseason field isn’t so easy. A flurry of problems for Chasers emphasized the importance of getting a win early in each elimination round so you don’t have to sweat it out in race three. It’s a lesson learned by Jimmie Johnson last year and passed down to a pair of Chip Ganassi employees, drivers who’ll have more than a few sleepless nights the rest of the year wondering what might have been.
Our first driver on the Hot/Not list this week also didn’t get much sleep Sunday night. But that was for a much different reason….
If you didn’t think Martin Truex, Jr. was a big favorite to be one of the four to reach the championship round at Homestead next month, you should rethink that a little bit now. Truex has won two of the first three races of the Chase and has the same kind of momentum going as Tony Stewart did when he won the championship in 2011. While Dover is considered Truex’s home track and he made a lot of New Jersey fans who made the trek to Delaware very happy Sunday, he also made it one of the more non-competitive races we’ve seen in a while. The combination of a penalty that eliminated Jimmie Johnson’s chances of winning and a race-closing green flag run that lasted 202 laps, gave Truex as about an easy of a win as you will see.
Going into Sunday’s race, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray were just inside the Chase (Larson) and just outside the Chase (McMurray). So logic would have it that if something happened to one of them, that the other would make it into the round of 12. But logic failed the Ganassi teammates this time. Larson had an electrical problem and penalty early on that put him three laps down and out of contention, and McMurray felt his engine starting to go for several laps before it finally expired, leaving a large cloud of smoke on the frontstretch and the Ganassi team’s championship hopes up in smoke as well.
It’s true that Jimmie Johnson’s team made a mistake on pit road that might have cost the No. 48 team a win, but what was also true and evident on Sunday was that Johnson had a very fast (and what looked like the fastest most of the time) car in the field. That could be good news for Johnson fans and bad news for the rest of the Chase field. Along with Dover, another track that Johnson has had major success at is Charlotte, where the Chase happens to go this coming Saturday night. It hasn’t been a stellar kind of season for Johnson by his standards, but the beauty (or the ugliness, depending on your point of view), of the Chase is that there are plenty of second chances and Johnson knows very well how to take advantage of them.
Getting into the second round of the Chase just wasn’t meant to be for three-time champion Tony Stewart. While Smoke had some good races this season and pulled off the win at Sonoma to make the Chase, he couldn’t consistently finish with enough top 10s to be a factor most of the season and he couldn’t manage a top 10 in any of the first three Chase races. It’s a bit sad to see him go, but on the other hand, I’d rather see him retire now rather than continue in non-competitive mode for the next three or four years.
One of the more entertaining things a fan can do when attending the race is listen to Stewart (and other drivers, too) on the scanner radio. During a yellow in Sunday’s race at Dover, Stewart’s crew chief Mike Bugarewicz thanked Stewart for battling with an ill-handling car that was gradually getting better throughout that the day. Stewart responded “that’s why you pay me the big bucks.” Bugarewicz replied, “No, that’s why you pay you the big bucks.” Stewart’s reply: “Oh, yeah.”
Almost every driver and team has won a race with the help of rain ending the event early, so nobody can blame Chris Buescher for not giving back his fog-induced and Chase spot clinching win at Pocono earlier this year. But the hard truth of the matter is that the No. 34 team was not one of the top 16, and really, not even one of the top 25 teams, in Sprint Cup this season. That reality was evident in these first three Chase races were Buescher was not close to being a contender in any of them. I’m not saying the Chase qualifying rules need to be changed, but just that sometimes that’s the way it goes.
HOT and NOT
Normally, I’m one to curse the weather delays (I sat through both Pocono delays this season) and NASCAR has had plenty of them this year. As some members of MRN radio pointed out Sunday, when NASCAR comes to town, that’s a drought buster. That was the case this past weekend with almost all of Saturday’s on-track activities being cancelled. The good news was that it brought about a NASCAR Chase doubleheader and for those of us who can attend Dover, but could only go on Sunday, it was a nice bonus to see two races in one day. Also, the Dover officials handled the Sunday ticket situation well and it was especially nice to be able to leave the track after the Xfinity race and be able to return for the Sprint Cup race. And don’t look now, but Hurricane Matthew could play havoc with the weather in Charlotte this coming weekend, too.
OK, so I gave a big hint I who I thought might win on Saturday night in Charlotte. With Jimmie Johnson finding speed again, I’m picking him to win and be the first driver to make the final eight in the Chase. The deep sleeper underdog who you might or might not think about pick is Ryan Blaney. I’m just playing a hunch here as the rookie has been fast at times, even though he’s a non-Chaser.