Brad Keselowski (Las Vegas), Kyle Busch (Richmond) and Ryan Blaney (Charlotte Road Course) earned first round victories and automatic bids to the Round of 12 of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs which begins Sunday in the Gander Outdoors 400 at Dover International Raceway (1 p.m., NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
It was a huge statement for Team Penske, which boasts two first round winners in Keselowski and Blaney and has all three of its drivers – also including Joey Logano –advancing to this next round of the Playoffs.
Of the three Penske drivers, Keselowski is the only one with a victory (2012) at the one-mile Dover track and he still holds the track qualifying record with a lap of 164.444 mph set back in May, 2014. Keselowski, who enters this race ranked fourth as the standings re-set, has four top-10s in the last five Dover races and led 108 laps in the spring race this season, but finished sixth.
The fourth race of the 10-week Playoff has been especially successful for Logano, who has won the fourth race twice – at Kansas in 2014 and at Charlotte in 2015. But the switch in venue to Dover this season may prove to be especially challenging.
The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford has 10 top-10 finishes in 19 starts at the “Monster Mile,” but only three top-five showings. He was 13th in the series’ first stop here of 2018. His best showing at the track is third place (in 2010 and 2013) and he’s only led four laps at the track in his career.
Last week’s winner Blaney has a record at Dover that is a bit up and down. He’s still looking for his first top-five there but has two top-10s in five starts with an average finish of 21.8. He was eighth in the spring, tying his career best mark set in his first start there in 2016.
Leader At The Track
It was a rough day for the championship leader Kyle Busch at Charlotte’s Road Course on Sunday, crashing out with only six laps remaining and ending up with a 32nd-place finish. So, he’s hoping to get back to that title mojo that has placed him firmly atop the points standings heading to Dover.
Busch is the defending Playoff race winner at the Monster Mile and his closest championship challenger, Kevin Harvick, won at the track in earlier this season.
In recent seasons, however, Busch has proven himself especially adept in the fall race here, scoring runner-up finishes in 2015 and 2016 before his win last October. Ten of his 16 top-10s at the track have come in the Playoffs. He’s led 1,188 laps in his career at the track – second only to 11-time winner Johnson’s record 3,105 laps out front. Five times he’s led at least 100 laps. Perhaps more amazingly, he led 302 of the 400 laps in the 2012 fall race here and finished seventh.
Harvick’s Not Afraid Of Miles The Monster
With seven victories this season and two wins overall at Dover – including earlier this year – Kevin Harvick no doubt arrives at the challenging one-miler feeling optimistic. He has 16 top 10s in 35 starts at the track and has earned his victories in the last six races. He led 355 of 400 laps in winning this race in 2015 – the most dominant showing at Dover in more than a decade.
Three times the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has led at least 200 laps, including this spring when he led 201 laps en route to what was his fourth win of the year at that point.
Harvick starts the second round of the Playoffs trailing Kyle Busch by five points and leading third-place Martin Truex Jr. by 12-points. His ninth-place finish at Charlotte last weekend earned him a series-best 24th top-10 finish on the year – and with seven races remaining puts him well within reach of his career-high 28 top 10s set in his 2015 championship runner-up season.
“I think as you look at Dover, if you look at our history, when I was at RCR (Richard Childress Racing), it was probably one of our worst racetracks,’’ Harvick said. “It’s been one of our best since I came to SHR in 2014. For me, the thing I love about Dover is just the fact it’s hammer down and you’re up on top of the wheel for 400 laps there. … It’s fast.
“You can just be aggressive with the car and you have to get in there and wrestle that thing all day because it’s bumpy, slings you up out of the corners, dumps you down in the corners, and there’s just a lot going on. The car is bouncing around a lot and, with as rough as the cars have been just as the ride goes, we are in for a rough ride when we get to Dover this weekend. It’s one of my favorite racetracks to go and race on.”
Home Sweet Home For Martin Truex Jr.
New Jersey native Martin Truex Jr. has long considered Dover International Raceway a home track and certainly his performances there indicate a good relationship.
The reigning Cup champion was fourth in the June race and fourth there in this race last year after winning the Busch Pole position. He has eight top-10 finishes in his last nine starts (with the outlier being an 11th-place finish), including top-five finishes in his last four races here – highlighted by a win in the 2016 Playoff race. He’s led 518 laps in the last seven Dover races.
“No question Dover has been a good track for us,” said Truex, who drives the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota. “I really feel comfortable driving there. It’s been one of my favorite tracks.”
“Though we enter Dover with a modest cushion of Playoff bonus points, we are very well aware that those points can evaporate in a hurry. We need to remain consistent with solid finishes and try to get as many stage points as possible.
“We also like Kansas Speedway, which is the third and final race in the Round of 12. Had plenty of success there too. Talladega (next race after Dover) is a wild card and we haven’t had much luck there, so we need to make sure we shine at Dover and Kansas to make the next round on our own and not worry about what other drivers are doing.”
Larson Looking To Reset
After impressively driving his hobbled No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet to a 25th-place finish that earned him a berth in the next round of the Playoffs in Sunday’s road course race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kyle Larson is ready to reset at one of his best tracks, Dover.
He won the pole position there in May and finished 10th. He was runner-up in both the 2016 and 2017 spring races at the “Monster Mile” - leading a race best 241 laps in 2017 but finishing second to Kyle Busch. He’s led 463 laps in the last five Dover races.
A win can’t come soon enough for Larson, who has a Monster Energy Series-best six runner-up finishes in 2018 but is still looking for Victory Lane.
The Chase Is On
Chase Elliott is never one to buy into “driver rating,” largely because it doesn’t take into account experience. But the 22-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver can take solace in a statistical analysis that shows he is one of the best at Dover.
Elliott has four top-five finishes in five races and averages a fifth-place finish at the mile-long track in Delaware. He was third-third-fifth and runner-up in his first four starts at the track and then finished 12th this spring. He led three times for 138 laps and was passed by Kyle Busch for the win with two laps remaining in this race last year.
The driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will start the second round of the Playoffs ranked ninth. He finished sixth at the Charlotte Road Course last weekend and has top-10s in eight of the last 10 races, including his first career Monster Energy Series victory at Watkins Glen in August.
Bowman Making His Mark On The Playoffs
If anyone thought that Hendrick Motorsports newbie Alex Bowman might take a season to work his way up the ranks in the team’s No. 88 Chevrolet, he has already quickly served notice he’s ready to contend for a title.
Dover may be a good test for the 25-year-old, who is ranked 12th among the 12-driver Playoff standings after a fourth-place finish on the Charlotte ROVAL last weekend. In five previous starts at the “Monster Mile,” Bowman’s best finish was a 20th in the spring of 2015 while he was driving for Tommy Baldwin Racing.
His average finish (29.8) at the track and driver rating (49.8) there are lowest among the Playoff drivers. But he led 26 laps at Dover in May – the most laps he’s led in a race this year (he also led 26 laps at Talladega, Ala.).
Jimmie Johnson Looking For Redemption
Although Jimmie Johnson wasn’t able to pull off a last lap pass for the win – and a spot in the next round of the Playoffs – last week on the new Charlotte Road Course, he shows up at Dover International Speedway highly motivated and understandably confident.
Johnson leads all drivers with 11 wins at the tough one-mile oval. The next-highest victory total at Dover in the field is three – by Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman. Johnson has 17 top-five finishes and 24 top 10s in 33 starts. His driver rating of 117.2 is head and shoulders above the field. Busch is second at 105.5.
The seven-time Monster Energy Series champion is the only driver with multiple Playoff wins at the track (2005, ‘09, ’10 and ’13) – two of those (2010 and 2013) resulting in a title. The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was eliminated from the 2018 Playoffs on Sunday at Charlotte – the odd man out in a three-way tiebreaker.