I find it mystifying when everyone figures they have the Chase in NASCAR figured out, only to have a new wrinkle come in that not one individual had expected. That is the beauty of this format, because anything can and will happen.
Dover is the finish of the Challenger Round, and just like a year ago teams needed to have the best run they could, and some had to cash in on the trophy just to make it into the next round. Every fan, and every team no less, had one driver pegged to beat, and it was the one that has made the “Monster Mile” his personal playpen. That is Jimmie Johnson. After 10 wins at this place, there’s no question he’s the one to beat. But, on this day, Miles beat him to the punch.
Early in Sunday’s race, Johnson came to pit road, his right-rear wheel and tire shiny like it had just been sprayed with water and then shined.
This was a problem, one that turned out to be costly. A broken rear seal caused all the fluid to escape, and the team suddenly went behind the wall to fix it. After 37 laps, he would return to the track, but in that moment, the one guy everyone knew they had to beat was all but beaten. The No. 48 team came back, and finished the race, but in 41st. That finish gave the team only three points.
How big of a loss was that; Johnson officially was eliminated from the Chase. His quest for a record-tying seventh championship was over, at the one place no one expected him to have issues at.
Eliminated along with Johnson on this day were Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer. Now, not all of them entering the day were in a desperate situation. Both McMurray and Menard could still get into the next round on points. However, the other driver that was desperate for a strong run was Kevin Harvick, the defending champion. His bad luck at Chicagoland and New Hampshire put him in position where he simply needed to win just to advance.
Not only did he win, he did so by leading all but 44 laps of the entire race. The victory made sure his championship defense would last for at least another three races, and more importantly put the focus on his team as the ones to beat now.
Two different situations, one race, both are reasons why this Chase format is absolutely perfect for the sport. Now, with 12 drivers in the Chase still, the standings are reset. Everyone is even, meaning each lap, each pass, means that much more.
The Contender Round is set to begin at Charlotte on Saturday night.
RESULTS: 1-Harvick 2-Kyle Busch 3-Earnhardt Jr. 4-McMurray 5-Almirola 6-Kahne 7-Kenseth 8-Stenhouse Jr. 9-Larson 10-Logano
NOTABLE FINISHES: 11-Truex Jr. 12-Gordon 14-Bowyer 15-Edwards 16-Keselowski 17-Kurt Busch 18-Hamlin 19-Newman 25-Menard 41-Johnson
CAUTIONS: 8 for 43 laps. Lap 4-6 (#23, 32 accident-turn 1); 42-45 (Competition); 113-117 (Debris-frontstretch); 193-205 (#23 accident-turn 2); 232-236 (Debris-frontstretch); 312-316 (#47 spin-turn 4); 355-358 (#34 accident-turn 2); 373-376 (Oil on track from #40).
LEAD CHANGES: 14 among 3 drivers. M. Kenseth 1-23; K. Harvick 24-41; M. Kenseth 42; K. Harvick 43-112; Kyle Busch 113; K. Harvick 114-195; Kyle Busch 196; K. Harvick 197-232; Kyle Busch 233-247; K. Harvick 248-312; Kyle Busch 313; K. Harvick 314-354; Kyle Busch 355; M. Kenseth 356-357; K. Harvick 358-400.
TIME OF RACE: 3 Hrs, 20 Mins, 13 Secs.
AVERAGE SPEED: 119.870 MPH
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 2.639 Seconds
CHASE STANDINGS: Contender Round drivers (Positions 1-12, All reset to 3000 points)-Hamlin, Kenseth, Harvick, Logano, Edwards, Truex Jr, Kurt Busch, Gordon, Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Newman, Earnhardt Jr; 13. McMurray, -902; 14. Johnson, -914; 15. Menard, -925; 16. Bowyer, -952.