By Brian Smith
For all the racing that has taken place at Dover International Speedway in its history, there never before has been a race with the implications of Sunday’s “AAA 400” NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. It’s a byproduct of the new format in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, in which Dover is the third and final race before the newly expanded field is cut from 16 to 12 drivers.
What that means is that for four of those 16 drivers, their championship dreams will end on Sunday evening. Perhaps before, when Dover was the second race in the Chase, a bad day would relegate a driver to a position in the standings where they likely wouldn’t be able to recover. But never before has it been as official as it will be this time.
In the years since the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup was conceived by NASCAR, Dover has been a different type of track for different drivers. Some of them, like Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, have been strong at the Monster Mile and look at the track as an opportunity to strengthen their spot in the standings. Others, like Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, have openly looked at the race as something they’d need to survive in order to keep any championship hopes alive.
It’s that difference that opens up so much possibility as to the effect that Sunday’s race will have on this year’s Chase. Because for as closely matched as the current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series cars are – where mere hundredths and sometimes thousandths of a second are the difference between winning and finishing 10th – a track like Dover is indeed a difference-maker because among the various drivers, there’s a relatively wide variance between success and failure.
For Harvick and Hamlin, it’s been more of the latter. Harvick has run 27 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Dover and has never won – only Pocono Raceway, where he’s winless in 28 starts, has been less kind to the driver. But Harvick’s hoping his luck is turning at the Monster Mile, since back in June he led 24 laps, his most at the track in more than 10 years, even though he finished 17th.
Harvick won the pole for Sunday’s race with a lap of 162.933 mph, his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole at Dover and a track record for the fall event. He comes into the race sitting third in the points standings, just seven back of leader Brad Keselowski, leaving him poised to use a revitalized Dover effort to close in on the top spot.
“We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing,” Harvick said. “Track position is huge here, especially at the beginning of the race. I guess that’s going to be a good deal to have the first pit stall. Here, especially under yellow you just don’t have to go very far when you’re leaving the pit box. I’ve never been in that stall, so I guess it’s going to be OK on that end of pit road.”
Hamlin is one of the four drivers who face elimination on Sunday – he’s tied for 13th with Greg Biffle, six points behind Ryan Newman – and he knows the implications of this race on his season.
“I expected to come here and contend for a pole and really contend for a win this weekend,” he said. “There’s a little more pressure to perform well this weekend. This will be the hardest race I’ve ever driven for 400 miles. I’m going to be as aggressive as I can without putting myself in a bad position. This is the most important race of my career because it’s the most significant of my career at this point.”
Hamlin is to be commended for putting out a sturdy air of confidence, but one can’t help but wonder if deep inside, he can’t believe that he has to deal with a situation like this at Dover, of all places.
However, the thing about racing is you start fresh at the beginning of every race. So Hamlin doesn’t have to necessarily worry about the past when he takes the green flag Sunday, and like Harvick, Hamlin might also be turning around his fortunes at Dover after a strong June race where he finished fifth, his best showing at the track in four years. It’s part of what’s gotten him to this point in the season, and with his third-place qualifying effort, he’s put himself in a good position to advance to the next round of the Chase.
For others, perhaps the pressure is a little bit less. That includes Keselowski, who will start fourth in his effort to keep the points lead. He’s doing so at a track where he won the fall race in 2012, which catapulted him to his Sprint Cup championship that year. This past spring, he took the pole and finished second.
Joey Logano is also likely in a good spot, even though he missed out on the second round of qualifying and will start 16th. Logano seems to have driven to the front of nearly every race this season at one time or another, and has officially led at least one lap in 19 of the 28 races this season, so the less-than-ideal starting position may not affect him too much.
Further incentive is that Logano is hoping to finally get over the hump at the Monster Mile in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series series race. The Nationwide race has not been a problem for him – in that series, Logano became the first driver in any circuit to win four consecutive races at Dover when he did so in that series, and almost made it five before finally seeing the streak snapped this past June. He’s led 695 laps in 11 NASCAR Nationwide Series races, but in 11 Sprint Cup starts, he’s flipped more times (seven during a legendary 2009 wreck) than he’s led laps (one in 2010), while never finishing better than third.
And let’s not forget Jimmie Johnson, who’s fourth in the points and could probably contend for the win at Dover while driving backwards. He’s the all-time career wins leader at the track with nine, and can never be counted out of any race at the Monster Mile.
There are plenty of drivers who are in between those two extremes. Nine of the 12 drivers who comprise 5th through 16th place have won at Dover at some point in their careers, with several of them having won multiple races. Jeff Gordon’s been around long enough that he won three of the 500-mile variety back in the 1990s. But all of those winners have had issues at the track as well, so it all makes for a day full of possibilities, and the very real possibility that in addition to four drivers bowing out of the race, the remaining 12 spots might be completely scrambled by Miles the Monster.
Green flag for the Sept. 28 “AAA 400” NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race is at 2 p.m. For tickets, click here.
For complete qualifying results, click here.