Brad Morgan · Tuesday October 1, 2013
Jimmie Johnson put an end to *Joe Gibbs Racing*’s Chase hold on winning with a typical Dover performance that ended with a trip to Victory Lane. After 400 laps around the Monster Mile, it has become clear that the 2013 championship is a three-driver competition, at least for now.
Can anyone else even appear on the radar screen? This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not shows that while some drivers are making their cases for the title, others are just trying to hang around, and doing a bad job of it as the series prepares for another trip to Kansas Speedway Sunday afternoon.
Jimmie Johnson’s win at Dover means that Matt Kenseth might actually have some competition for this year’s championship after all.
The five-time champion is the hands-down best amongst active drivers at Dover, and it showed Sunday, as he reclaimed some ground in the standings. The No. 48 Chevrolet led the way for 243 laps en route to claiming a record eighth win at the one-mile speedway, giving Johnson the edge over all-time greats Richard Petty and Bobby Allison in that category.
The Chase competition better watch out. That’s three straight top 5s for Johnson, who now appears poised to challenge for the points lead when the series revisits Kansas Speedway. There’s only one problem with Johnson’s plan to take control. Kenseth has been just as good as the Lowe’s driver there – especially lately.
Johnson has the edge in the career average finish department in KC (an unrivaled 7.6 mark), but Kenseth has been to Victory Lane in the last two visits. Those wins make the two title contenders near mirror images of one another over the past five races in the Heart of America.
Speaking of heart, Kyle Busch has shown a lot of it since the Chase began more than two weeks ago. A fifth in the AAA 400 merits him a spot alongside Johnson and Kenseth after back-to-back events.
Busch beat out his teammate by two positions, enough to close the gap between them to just 12 points. Their playoff success (and a combined six HOT-level Hot or Not reviews during that span) is a testament to Joe Gibbs Racing’s turnaround from the widespread engine problems that rocked the organization earlier this season.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Joey Logano got exactly what they needed from Round 3 of the Chase to keep Kenseth in check.
The No. 88 machine started from the pole position and stayed in front for 25 circuits, making it clear that the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was in top form before finishing second. Pitting issues, including a Lap 38 stall and later a blown entry on Lap 117, weren’t enough to ruin Junior’s afternoon.
Still, consecutive top-6 finishes have moved Earnhardt Jr. ahead of the current Chase bottom feeders after a disastrous start at Chicagoland. However, he will need to improve upon his 16th in April’s STP 400 to mount a more serious rally at Kansas.
Meanwhile, Logano’s return to Chase relevancy, following the depths of mechanical failure has taken on a similar trajectory.
After a blown engine at Chicagoland left the No. 22 team leagues behind the other hopefuls, finishes of 14th at Loudon and third at Dover have helped “Sliced Bread” recover some of the momentum he had entering the final ten races.
This rise might be as good as it gets for the Penske driver, though, because Logano has never fared better than 15th at Kansas. In his first Chase, the ups and downs of this postseason will be a learning experience he can bank for the future.
Earnhardt Jr. and Logano weren’t the only drivers making headway Sunday, as the top 10 was composed entirely of championship-eligible drivers. Others, like Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick, were able to rebound from tough New Hampshire moments in Delaware.
Further back, Jamie McMurray continues to lead the way for non-Chasers thanks to an 11th-place run that capped off a great September. A four-race stretch that includes no finish worse than 19th has elevated the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver to 14th in the standings, the “best of the rest” among those not eligible for the championship.
Kurt Busch wasn’t among the Chase contenders to finish inside the top 10. Instead, he settled for a 21st-place run that dropped him to seventh in points. *Furniture Row Racing*’s gamble to replace most of his pit crew before Dover didn’t pay off – and possibly contributed to a loose wheel that left Busch several laps off the pace – hurting the Colorado-based team’s chances of writing even more history before season’s end.
To make matters worse, it’s the second race in a row that the No. 78 hasn’t been among the first 10 finishers, making a good showing at Kansas even more crucial. It’s the first time they’ve had back-to-back runs of 13th or worse since Loudon and Indianapolis in July.
Improvement, also would mean that Busch must to do better than the 15th-place finish he had at Kansas earlier this year. The Las Vegas native isn’t exactly guaranteed to do that, as Busch has just three top-10 results at Kansas in 15 career starts.
Many Chasers had a bad finish they were trying to come back from entering Dover, and almost all of them either made up ground or stabilized their teams. Carl Edwards, by comparison had been one of the fortunate ones not to encounter a setback, entering the day fourth in points. But his title dreams have turned towards “life support” status after the Monster Mile forced the No. 99 Fusion behind the wall with a broken hub.
The 35th is a monstrous blow for Edwards, who fell from within grasp of the leaders to 11th in the standings. The 65-point deficit will be tough to recover from, although Kansas could be the remedy the Roush Fenway driver needs to get back onto his feet. Edwards has raced to a top-10 finish in 67 percent of his starts in the Sunflower State; he will need a similar effort to make up ground.
The No. 2 team collapsed down the stretch of the regular season, meaning that Brad Keselowski missed the Chase one year after being crowned champion. Dover gave another example of why the team failed to live up to expectations.
While running 12th on Lap 222, Keselowski radioed that there was smoke inside his Fusion and decided to pit the car. The crew discovered damage to the rear that forced the team to the garage area for repairs. Keselowski settled for a 37th that dropped him to 15th in the standings.
NASCAR’s reigning Cup champion cannot seem to catch enough breaks to make an impact this season, and it has shown with numbers down across the board. Without a win and with seven finishes of 30th or worse it is no surprise that he missed out on this year’s Chase.
Phil Parsons Racing retired after 107 laps at Dover because of a brakes issue, forcing the No. 98 team to accept a 43rd-place result. As problematic as a last place-finish can be, it’s more troubling that this start-and-park is becoming the norm for Michael McDowell and Johnny Sauter when they pilot for the single-car operation.
NASCAR announced that reduced prize money would be given to teams that finish 39th or worse before the season started, but that hasn’t hindered PPR’s start-and-park minded approach. The organization has 23 DNFs in 26 starts this season with only one lead-lap finish – a ninth in the Daytona 500.
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