By Jason Schultz / @NASCARJason – The opening round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup has not disappointed.
It has produced drama fans only saw in the second half of the final ten races last fall. This attests to the intensity associated with the new system.
In each elimination race last season, the drama mounted as drivers fought to keep their title hopes alive. This created thrilling racing every time the field was cut.
With experience under the new format comes the knowledge needed to advance. The desperate measures associated with moving on could lead to drivers making wild moves to secure a spot in the Contender Round.
In addition to prior knowledge, the preexisting drama in this year’s Chase will make each lap action-packed.
This comes as a result of the difficulties Kevin Harvick has faced over the past two weeks. The defending champion seemingly had a much better regular season than 2014 and appeared to be the front runner heading into the Chase. However, two issues have put him at risk of facing elimination if he’s unable to recover this weekend at Dover International Speedway.
The craziness of the Challenger Round has also included the problems two favorites to make a deep playoff run have encountered in Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Both left New Hampshire disappointed and in a position where a solid Dover performance is crucial.
Combining these storylines is setting the stage for an electrifying weekend. The “Monster Mile” acts as a great host for this level of competition as it is one of the most challenging tracks on the circuit. Avoiding chaos will be key for the drivers on the bubble as one mistake could cost them their title hopes.
Jeff Gordon currently sits tenth in the standings, 12 points ahead of the 13th position. While he isn’t in grave danger, the four-time champion can’t afford a poor performance. He describes Dover as a very physical track, noting the technical challenges it presents, “You are constantly fighting between push-loose, push-loose and you are just working the steering wheel constantly.”
The Hendrick Motorsports driver also stated that, “You are working hard each lap.” Being the defending race winner, he conquered the demands in a pressure situation last season and could have another strong run in his final appearance at the track.
In his first Chase appearance, Jamie McMurray will come to Dover needing to have a great performance to avoid having his playoff appearance end prematurely. He sits 11th in the standings, only two points ahead off the cutoff position.
Discussing what he anticipates for Sunday, he said, “I expect this to be a very exciting weekend at Dover. With it being a Chase cut off race, there will be tension for a lot of teams.”
“It will be important to have good track-position and even more important to have a car that works good getting around that track,” the 2010 Daytona 500 winner said, referencing the keys to a solid run that could lead to the Contender Round.
After running out of fuel in the closing laps of the Sylvania 300, Earnhardt Jr. finds himself in the danger zone. Occupying the final transfer spot by one point doesn’t allow for much breathing room.
The Coke Zero 400 winner noted that the No. 88 Nationwide Plenti Chevrolet team will rely on past track notes to find speed.
“I think going back on our notes from this year and years before will help. Hopefully we’ve written the notes well to help us understand what we need to look forward to – and weaknesses and strengths in our team from the past that we can improve upon.”
As of late, the 40-year old hasn’t been the most consistent at the speedway. However, he finished second two years ago after capturing the pole. Applying what worked that weekend could be his key to success in the AAA 400.
After a stellar summer, Kyle Busch seemed to be a lock for a championship run. While the chance still exists, it will include a tough challenge this weekend. He’ll need to outrun the other drivers on the bubble as he is currently the first in an elimination spot, one point out of the top-12.
In order to advance, he’ll need to overcome his Dover struggles as of late. He has finished outside the top-36 twice in the past three races. In May, he had a solid day before being involved in an accident. He will need to avoid this at all costs on Sunday because a crash would likely end his playoff run.
Paul Menard is currently in the second elimination spot. However, he only trails the 12th position by one point. This will lead to a lot of back and forth racing between the Richard Childress Racing driver and the other competitors close in points.
For the 2011 Brickyard 400 winner, the corners present the greatest difficulty in Dover, saying, “I find the toughest part is the first one-third of the corner.”
“The car is going through a huge load as you drive downhill into the corner and as the car first compresses, then decompresses, it changes how the tires load and can get pretty unpredictable.”
After the No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet team made a costly mistake in New Hampshire, there is no room for error this weekend. Focus will be key as a split second distraction could be the deciding factor in this team’s title hopes.
“You definitely have to pay attention to what you are doing every lap, because if you let your guard down for any one moment it’s going to be a mistake,” Harvick said.
His level of performance throughout the season provides high hopes that this group can run well and avoid elimination. If they are able to do so, they will reemerge as favorites to capture the Sprint Cup.
Clint Bowyer’s strategy is simple this weekend – win. Facing a 39 point deficit to the 12th position, only a victory can further this team’s championship quest.
With that in mind, “I expect it to be crazy. The fans are going to get their money’s worth,” the Michael Waltrip Racing driver commented.
The 36-year old knows how to have fun. It’s an approach he’ll take this weekend, saying, “It’s just a different kind of short track. And that’s what makes it such a fun place to run.”
No matter the outcome, the dramatic start to the final ten race stretch is likely to continue. With so many drivers battling for select positions, drastic measures will be taken as one finishing position could determine a driver’s approach to the rest of the season.
Crashes, fights, and last-second moves highlighted the elimination events last season. Knowing what’s on the line, seeing these captivating instances resurface would not come as a surprise. Miles the Monster is hungry and will be chomping on competitors’ championship hopes this weekend.