Jay Pennell · Friday September 24, 2010
One race down, nine more to go for the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup. This weekend, the series heads to the Monster Mile in Dover, Del. The high-banked concrete mile track is among the most demanding on the circuit, and has a tendency to tear up race cars and hurt Chase chances.
Clint Bowyer’s shot at the championship took a major hit this week when NASCAR announced they would penalize the New Hampshire winner 150 points for a violation found at the NASCAR R&D Center following last weekend’s race. The penalty dropped Bowyer from second in the standings all the way back to 12th, 185 marks out of the top spot.
For current points leader Denny Hamlin, the goal is to emerge from this weekend the championship favorite, but first he must get through one of his most challenging tracks. In his last six Dover races, Hamlin has one top-5 finish – a fourth earlier this year. In those previous five starts, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver wrecked twice and finished 22nd, 36th, 38th, 43rd and 38th.
With Bowyer’s Chase hopes essentially dashed thanks to NASCAR’s heavy-handed penalty given out Wednesday, Hamlin has a bit more breathing room at the top of the Chase standings.
The No. 11 team has shown time and again they will be a factor regardless of their setbacks. Despite Hamlin’s knee surgery six races into the season, this organization has overcome adversity and put themselves in position to win nearly every week.
Following his back to back wins in Pocono and Michigan, Hamlin had four finishes of 34th or worse over the next 10 races, a streak that culminated with the 43rd-place finish last month in Atlanta. One of the strongest cars and biggest threats to eventual race winner Tony Stewart, Hamlin’s car suffered a motor failure after only 143 laps.
“It’s frustrating,” Hamlin said in the garage of the Atlanta Motor Speedway. “I know if we had the reliability that we could win this championship and the odds would be pretty good to win the championship if I can just keep it together for 10 weeks.”
Hamlin went on to win the final race of the regular season and solidified his spot as the points leader going into the Chase. Last weekend in Loudon, Hamlin was spun by Carl Edwards racing for third and came back to finish second, maintaining his points lead.
If Hamlin is able to shake the bad luck he has had as of late and at the Monster Mile and emerges from the weekend with a solid finish, look out Chase field. This team has won more races than anyone (six), has overcome multiple setbacks and distractions, and still week-in and week-out they are showing up ready to race and race for the win – as he told our own Danny Peters in Tuesday’s Beyond the Cockpit.
“If I leave Dover within 50-80 points, we’ve got a great shot at this thing. I’ve got to play defense these next two weeks, make sure I stay on the racetrack to go make a run at it,” he explained. “I feel like our big track program is so good – we won at three or four of the Chase tracks over the course of my career. There’s no reason we can’t get it done.”
While Hamlin is simply looking to play defense at Dover, expect the Roush Fenway trio of Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, and Matt Kenseth to swing for the fences.
The Roush cars always perform well at Dover and in the second race of the Chase in 2008, Biffle scored the win – his second in two Chase races – but had to battle teammates Kenseth and Edwards to do so. The teammates raced each other for the lead for nearly 100 laps, with Biffle finally getting the advantage with eight laps to go. Denny Hamlin finished 38th in that very same race.
“We have nine races left in the Chase and we are going to Dover to win this race,” Edwards said. “We are going all out 100 percent. We’re taking a new car this weekend that should be fast. I’m excited to go there. It’s a great track for me and my Aflac team. We’ve had some really good runs there including a win. For me, this is one of the races in the Chase where I can make a difference as a driver.”
Knowing their success on the concrete monster, Biffle understands that a successful outing this weekend in Dover could propel them to a stretch of good runs over the next few weeks.
“I am definitely ready to get to Dover this weekend. I think it should be the start of a few good finishes for us. We’ve been running well at the faster tracks and I think that will carry over to Dover, Kansas, California and Charlotte. We need to get solid top-5 finishes at each of those tracks because we consider Martinsville and Phoenix to be weaker tracks for us and you just never know what might happen at Talladega.”
Former series champion Matt Kenseth needs to have a great run this weekend if he is to even be considered a player in this year’s Chase. Throughout the year, Kenseth has flown under the radar, failing to make headlines – unless they were about crew chief changes – and still somehow made it into the Chase with few believing he would actually contend. Perhaps summing up their entire season in one race, last week in New Hampshire Kenseth was wrecked by Joey Logano. The car suffered extensive damage, but the No. 17 team still managed to finish 23rd.
Dover is one of Kenseth’s best tracks, with the Wisconsin-native finishing in the top-4 in the last five events. With crew chief Jimmy Fennig on his side, Kenseth should be a factor again this weekend, but that still may not mean he will emerge as a contender for the title.
Another driver that hopes to rebound from a disappointing opening race at one of his best tracks is four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson. Last week in Loudon, Johnson was extremely aggressive from the drop of the green flag and was involved in multiple incidents throughout the day. A vibration brought the No. 48 to pit road with less than 50 laps to go, ruining his chances at a solid finish.
Dropping from second to seventh in the Chase, Johnson heads to the track he swept last year and has always been a threat.
Only one race into this year’s Chase, each of the 12 teams feel the championship can still be theirs. Some have better chances than others, but last weekend’s race showed these 12 teams are going to do anything they can to win and finish up front. Dover is a tricky track for most and could play a role in determining who is going to run for the title and who is going to be an also-ran in this year’s Chase.
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