AAA 400 Preview
October 1, 2015
By Micah Roberts
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The greatest thing about the current Chase format unveiled last season, where we have three different elimination stages, is the drama it creates. We have storylines like we've never seen before in NASCAR at such an early stage before the championship is decided. For the first 26 races, we get to witness who might be the best equipped to handle these situations, but there's nothing quite like added pressure to create an intriguing storyline.
We've got eight races to go until a champion is crowned, but an early October race at Dover has so many title implications such as last year’s champ Kevin Harvick being on the brink of elimination. Kyle Busch wowed us all in late June and early July by winning four of five races, but he's outside looking in -- only one point outside of 12th-place. Can Harvick duplicate his feat at Phoenix last fall in a win or go-home situation and can Busch shed his trend of being a complete zero in the Chase over his career?
In Sunday's AAA 400 at Dover, we'll find out a lot of those answers as four of the 16 Chase drivers will be eliminated. Two drivers, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, are locked in to advance on the basis of each winning the first two races of the Chase and another will advance if winning Sunday's race.
We've got a lot of things to consider before selecting a winner for Sunday based on several circumstances. Do you go with the hot driver or team that has been running well lately? Do you go with the driver who has had the most all-time success at Dover's high banked 1-mile concrete layout? Or do you go with a few of the drivers that are in desperation mode, who have to win to advance to the next round?
Harvick is the key driver in desperation mode this week as he sits in 15th-place, 23 points behind the 12th and final position to advance. For the second straight week Harvick experienced some bad luck, this time while leading at New Hampshire with three laps to go before running out of fuel. He dominated the race leading 216 of the 300 laps, but his gas man didn't get enough fuel in the tank during the final pit stop.
During the regular season, Harvick had 18 top-five finishes in 26 races to lead the field. In the playoffs, he hasn't cracked the top-20 yet and now he needs to win at Dover to advance, a place he's never won at in 29 career starts. However, he did finish second in the first race held there this season on May 31.
That first Dover race was also the last time we've seen Jimmie Johnson win a race. It was Johnson's fourth win of the season, which at the time was twice as many as anyone else in the series had. But Johnson hasn't won since then. In fact, no Chevrolet driver has won in the past 11 races as the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota's have won 10 of the past 13 races. The Penske Fords have two wins over that stretch with Joey Logano. The last Chevy to win was Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona over the Fourth of July weekend. It's a drought seldom seen out of Chevrolet and it's happening at the wrong time with a championship on the line.
The good news for the guys in bow ties is that Johnson is the all-time leader in wins at Dover with 10 in 27 starts. That's one win in every 2.7 starts, an insane ratio for any driver in any series to have had occur for so long. He's won three of the past four there and his 7.8 average finish is also the best among all drivers, but current form counts for something and Johnson and Chevy just don't have their things together right now. Johnson has never looked so ordinary heading into a Dover race over his entire career.
Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook manager Ed Salmons said he's going to make Johnson the favorite this week just because the public always bets Johnson feversihly at Dover due to that 2.7 win ratio, but says that "Harvick should be the favorite."
Last season when Harvick had to have a win to advance from Phoenix into the Championship Race at Homestead, he came through. But Phoenix also was a place where no one was better than Harvick. Dover is a little different. Still, Salmons has kept Harvick's Sprint Cup odds relatively low at 12/1 odds showing he is somewhat confident the champ will advance despite the deficit.
We can say goodbye to Clint Bowyer's championship hopes this week, but after that it's murky. Will Paul Menard have a decent showing as he sits one point out of 12th? Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. safe in 12th-place? Will Jamie McMurray hang on to 11th? And what driver that looks comfortable right now will have that dreaded mishap or run of bad luck like Harvick has had in the first two races. As far as Harvick's concerned, he hopes the entire field wrecks.
Of course the drivers in great form right now are the JGR drivers, especially Matt Kenseth who grabbed his fifth win of the season on Sunday. It was his fourth win in the past eight races. He's had two wins over his career at Dover along with 15 top-fives in 33 starts. He is on a roll and should be a factor on Sunday as well. His teammate Carl Edwards won at Dover in 2007 and has the second best average finish (10.60) behind Johnson. Denny Hamlin has never at Dover while Kyle Busch has two wins. For Busch, he needs a great run to advance to the next Chase round because he's currently 1-point out of the 12th and final advance position.
Because Dover is unlike any other track on the circuit there isn't much to compare it to, but I do like to throw in a small sample of what happened at Bristol's high-banked half-mile layout because the set-up requirements are similar and crew chiefs often use the same chassis' at both facilities. Logano won last month at Bristol and Kenseth won his first race of the season there in April.
Logano's teammate, Brad Keselowski, won at Dover during his championship run in 2012 and was runner-up in both races last season. He's also a driver that has had success at Bristol over his career and should run enough Sunday to possibly grab his second win of the season.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)
2) #4 Kevin Harvick (5/1)
3) #20 Matt Kenseth (7/1)
4) #2 Brad Keselowski (10/1)
5) #22 Joey Logano (8/1)