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Apache Warriors 400

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Alright, it's Playoff elimination time in NASCAR. We've got to say goodbye to four drivers after Sunday's Apache Warrior 400 at Dover International Speedway's one-mile, high-banked, concrete layout. It's the final race of the Round of 16 and only four drivers are assured of advancing leaving the other 12 drivers scrambling with different strategies to stay alive.

For Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne, they're going to have to run a great race this week while also having some luck go their way. They're the last four on the chopping block. They could take care of business by winning a race and automatically qualify for the next round, but with the way the balance of the series has shifted so dramatically to a few stout cars, that doesn't seem likely.

Four drivers have already qualified for the next by virtue of wins in the first two races of this round -- Martin Truex Jr. at Chicagoland and Kyle Busch at New Hampshire -- and two other drivers -- Kyle Larson (2,125 points) and Brad Keselowski (2,106) -- have clinched by accumulating enough points.

In the first Dover race of the season in early June, Larson finished second and Truex was third. They've been dominant like that almost everywhere. But a surprise top-five contender was Newman (2,043) in fourth-place and he could use another solid run like that and he's only two points behind the 12th-place transfer position. Chase Elliott finished fifth, his third straight top-five at Dover in his first three Cup starts there. He's sitting ninth in points (2,070).

The driver quietly sitting seventh in points is seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (2,076) and he's trending poorly lately. What happened? His last top-five finish was 16 races ago when he captured his then-series leading third win of the season. That win happened to be at Dover and it was his track record 11th win on the high-banked one-mile concrete layout. The champ has led a track-record 3,100 laps in 31 starts. That is domination at all stages of his career.

“Dover, hands down, is one of my favorite tracks," Johnson said. "It suits my driving style as well as the team in how they build and set up the cars. We have had so much success over the years at Dover, I wish we raced there every weekend. I can’t wait to get in that race car.”

The only problem with taking him here is that his car is running like an also-ran, not a champion. He held an early edge to grab three early season wins, but I have no explanation for his recent demise other than everyone else got a lot better. He's not in Truex or Larson's class, nor Kyle Busch's, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth or Keselowski's. but still, his history there is hard to ignore.

Proof that Johnson would have his car dialed in for Dover is that he won at Bristol five weeks earlier. Even though Dover is twice the size of Bristol, the concrete, banking and grooves make it similar to the point that several teams use the same set-up and same exact chassis for each if having success.

Kyle Busch won the most recent Bristol race last month and I think that's the angle to first approach here. He's won twice at Dover over his Cup career and has been runner-up in the fall race the past two seasons.

“Dover, being a concrete track, is challenging," Busch said. "They’re all a challenge, but Dover is especially so, just because of the way you have to run around that place. The way tires sometimes wear out. The way the rubber gets put down there. You’ve got to be fast through the corner. Two-thirds of your lap time is through the turns rather than down the straightaway, so you definitely have to make sure you have a good handling racecar – one that’s good in the beginning of the run on low air pressures and one that’s good at the end of the run on high air pressures, and even through traffic, too. Some of the most challenging times are when you’re trying to get through traffic with guys.”

Newman, a three-time Dover winner, finished sixth in the August Bristol race and Erik Jones, who isn't in the Playoffs, finished second and led the most laps (260). Jones might be a really good long shot to take a shot with if getting more than 25-to-1. Still, this will be a heavyweight battle between the elite teams.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #18 Kyle Busch (5/1)
2) #20 Matt Kenseth (12/1)
3) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (9/2)
4) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)
5) #48 Jimmie Johnson (16/1)

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