Mash The Gas: Dover Preview

Will it be another Jimmie Johnson Dover domination? [Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The first elimination race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup is set for this Sunday as the Dover International Speedway hosts the AAA 400.

At the conclusion of the Dover event, the bottom four Chase contenders will see their championship hopes vanish as the Challenger round comes to a close with twelve drivers moving on.

Dover is an ultra-fast one mile high banked oval and its concrete surface make it somewhat unique compared to a majority of tracks on the schedule. The pressure and intensity of making the initial Chase cut comes to a head this Sunday afternoon as drivers deep in the point standings and those on the cusp of elimination fight to stay alive in the Sprint Cup battle in the AAA 400 and here are some storylines to watch…

Kevin Harvick (Dan Margetta)
Not only did the defending Sprint Cup champion fall short of the win and a trip to the next Chase round last week at New Hampshire, but the team’s daring fuel gamble leaves them in dire straits this weekend at Dover. Currently 23 points out of the cut-off spot, Kevin Harvick finds himself in a must win situation at Dover, a track where he has yet to find victory lane despite finishing second here in May. Despite his desperate situation, Harvick is still considered a favorite to close the deal with a needed victory has he is listed at 5-1 odds this week. That is partly because Kevin Harvick needed a walk-off victory to advance twice last season and each time he was able to pull it off. The team is strong and Rodney Childers is a great asset to have on the pit box as the #4 team faces a win or nothing Dover race. After New Hampshire last week, Kevin Harvick boldly claimed, ‘It ain’t over’ and the defending champ will be on a mission with one destination in mind on Sunday…victory lane… even if he has to knock Jimmie Johnson out of the way.

Matt Kenseth (John Wiedemann)
The strongest driver of the strongest team in NASCAR made his first start at Dover International Raceway, subbing for Bill Elliott. Matt Kenseth has been at the top of his game and looks right now to be the biggest threat to claim the championship. Kenseth is at the top of the point standings and locked in to move forward to the next round, but that doesn’t mean this team will coast. With last week’s victory at New Hampshire, Kenseth now has a series leading five for the season. Look for more wins coming from the #20 bunch starting with this weekend at Dover.

Jimmie Johnson (DM)
Nobody is better at Dover than Jimmie Johnson who has won three out of the last four races here, including the most recent event held last May. Johnson has ten Dover victories all together in just 27 starts and he leads in all statistical categories. Plus he is making his 500th career start at what he calls his favorite track. However, while he is listed at 5-1 odds, he hasn’t found victory lane since his May Dover win and has spent the last fifteen weeks chasing the Toyotas of the Joe Gibbs Racing organization. Also, Johnson needs to keep a close eye out for Kevin Harvick, who has publicly blamed Johnson for his predicament after their on-track contact at Chicago two weeks ago, and if victory is out of Harvick’s grasp, the thought of retaliation has to cross Jimmie Johnson’s mind. On paper, Jimmie Johnson is the guy to beat at Dover but with the added pressures of the Chase, anything can happen.

Kyle Busch (JW)
Currently on the outside looking in, Kyle Busch needs a solid top three weekend to move forward to the next round of the Chase. Busch is just one point behind Dale Earnhardt Jr and two points behind Jamie McMurray to claw his way back into the next round. No more mistakes and a solid day of racing to finish in front of those drivers is all Busch needs to do to continue on. Easier said than done though.
Statistically, Busch has two wins and a better average finish (15.1) at Dover than both Earnhardt (16.9) and McMurray (19.2). But, Busch needs to get it done on the track, throw the statistics out the window.

Brad Keselowski (DM)
Brad Keselowski has a single victory at Dover coming in 2012 and he finished a strong second at both events a year ago. Keselowski is listed at 10-1 odds this week and he enters Dover with a little bit more pressure than anticipated after receiving a late race restart violation penalty last week at New Hampshire. The Penske Fords have been strong all season and Keselowski seems to excel when he is under pressure and while not as close to elimination as others, he should be one of the drivers to keep an eye on this weekend. Another driver with a strong crew chief in Paul Wolfe calling the shots, Brad Keselowski should definitely be a contender on Sunday in the AAA 400.

Clint Bowyer (JW)
With the announcements this week of Clint Bowyer joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2017 and HScott Racing for next season, you would think that the driver for the lame duck Michael Waltrip Racing team might just coast for the final races of the season. A tough start to the Chase including a 25 point penalty has Bowyer at the bottom, almost a race worth of points out of the cutoff position to move on to the next round of the Chase. But Bowyer is a racer and will not just throw in the towel. Bowyer has two top five and twelve top ten finishes in nineteen starts at the Dover mile. The one thing he is missing is the one thing that he needs right now, a win. Don’t be surprised to see Bowyer laying it all out on the line and mixing it up with the leaders.

Jeff Gordon (DM)
Jeff Gordon makes his final Dover start on Sunday and he enters this weekend at 25-1 odds to win. Despite his high odds, Gordon has strung together some strong Chase runs the past two weeks and he is no stranger to victory lane at Dover has he holds five victories including this race a year ago. The #24 team has also made some changes to set up Gordon’s championship run in his final season and if some reports are correct, they appear to have swiped all-star front tire changer Nick Odell away from the #18 Kyle Busch/Joe Gibbs Racing organization. Many times race victories come down to time saved in the pits and if this change pans out, it could be just what sends Jeff Gordon back to victory lane as he completes his final season behind the wheel.

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