Matt Stallknecht · Friday September 27, 2013
Looks like I’m going to have to eat my own words. Last week, in this very column, I said that Matt Kenseth was doomed for a mediocre day based on his past history at New Hampshire. Boy, was I wrong. The jovial Wisconsinite instead racked up his second-straight Chase victory and made fools out of all of us who doubted him. The series is of course headed to Dover this week for Round Three of the 2013 Chase, and Kenseth’s shockingly brilliant start to the Chase is obviously a big story headed into the weekend. Despite it being a relatively slow news week (thankfully so, after certain events of weeks past), there is still much to discuss as we gear up for the AAA 400 at the Monster Mile. Could Dover’s treacherous high banks burn a key Chase contender? Is this the weekend that the No. 48 team breaks through? Can a non-chaser finally step up? The answers to those questions are just a few clicks down the page.
1. Could Dover’s high banks be something of a wild card for the Chase contenders?
Much ado is made about Talladega being the so-called “annual wild-card race” of the Chase. Due to the propensity for freakishly large multi-car accidents to break out at the facility, ‘Dega is always circled as the race that drivers have to “get past” in order to make a real championship run. What most fans and drivers tend to forget, however, is that Talladega is not the only Chase track known for experiencing “the Big One.” Alas, Talladega is not the only wild-card in the Chase.
In this writer’s humble opinion, that second wild-card track is Dover. Dover is fast, narrow, high-banked, and relatively short. There is very little room to race on track and the track is thus incredibly frustrating to drive. This confluence of factors has historically led to some spectacularly large crashes that literally clog portions of the track. The most recent “Big One” at Dover occurred in the 2012 Spring race which collected over 10 cars.
“The Big One” is also not the only pitfall that Chase contenders will have to watch. Dover’s surface is also famously rough on right-front tires, and right-front tire blowouts are almost guaranteed to happen, and they can happen to any driver at any time without warning.
These two factors will absolutely bear watching on Sunday. Dover is a wild-card, more so than any Chase track not named Talladega, and the Chase drivers will have to race on Sunday knowing that something totally unrelated to them could end their day in a snap.
2. Will Jimmie Johnson finally make his presence known?
Midway through the 2013 season, if you asked any fan in the NASCAR world who they thought was the favorite to win the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup, the answer would have inevitably been “Jimmie Johnson.” So dominant was Johnson during the early to middle portion of the season that fans were calling in to sports talk shows proclaiming that Johnson was killing the sport.
Yet, here we are two races into the Chase, and Johnson seems to be a shell of his early season self. Despite putting together two solidly consistent top 10 runs to kick off the Chase, Johnson hasn’t been a true threat to win a race since early August. This is obviously concerning for the Johnson camp, but luckily help may be on the way in the form of the Monster Mile.
Indeed, Dover is arguably Johnson’s best race track. He has seven victories at the facility, most among active drivers, and has led more laps (2461) than any other active driver to boot. He is a man among boys at the concrete 1 mile oval. And frankly, this is his best chance to make up ground on points leader Matt Kenseth.
All told, this should be Jimmie Johnson’s time to shine this weekend. Whether or not he can deliver a win at his best race track will tell us a lot about where he and his team stand heading into the final stretch of the Chase.
3. Will a non-Chaser step up to the plate?
Every year, there is always one driver who does not make the cut for the Chase who ends up overperforming a majority of the Chase field during the final 10 races of the season. Last year, it was Kyle Busch, who delivered the third best points total of any active driver during the 10-race Chase.
Going into this year’s edition of the Chase, I picked Brad Keselowski to fill this role. So far, that pick has proven to be a bit of a bust. Keselowski has been “good not great” in the two opening Chase races. Instead, the guy who has perhaps been the most impressive non-Chaser has been Brian Vickers. Vickers delivered a strong 7th place run last week in New Hampshire and likely would have had a top 5 in Chicagoland had it not been for a sour engine late in the race.
But even still, no non-Chaser has been able to match the level of production set by Kyle Busch in 2012. This weekend in Dover, keep an eye on the non-Chasers. If a non-Chaser tears through Dover and goes on a Kyle Busch-esque streak of success, it could mean that driver is poised for big things in 2014.
4. Who will take the checkers in the AAA 400?
As was mentioned earlier, when the series rolls into Dover, Jimmie Johnson should automatically be penciled in as the favorite. The man is just absurdly productive at the facility. The only other driver who can statistically go toe-to-toe with Johnson at Dover is fellow championship contender Kyle Busch. Busch, who has surprisingly flown under the radar to some extent during the playoffs thus far, has plenty of momentum heading into the weekend on the strength of back to back top 2 finishes, and his Dover record is sterling. Busch has two wins at the track and has scored six top 10s in his past seven races there. When making your fantasy lineup this weekend, assume you are going to lose if you don’t have the No. 18 or No. 48 in your lineup.
Matt Kenseth is an intriguing pick this weekend as well, if for no reason other than his incredible wealth of momentum. Kenseth is certainly no slouch at Dover and won the Spring 2011 event. He would certainly be a safe pick to score at least a top 5 finish.
As for non-Chasers, this might just be the weekend that Brad Keselowski comes alive. Keselowski won this event one year ago and has absolutely nothing to lose by going for a win. If pit strategy becomes a factor late in the going and the No. 2 car is towards the front, the checkered flag could very well land in Bad Brad’s hands.
Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2013 AAA 400
1. 48 – Jimmie Johnson
2. 2 – Brad Keselowski
3. 18 – Kyle Busch
4. 20 – Matt Kenseth
5. 56 – Martin Truex Jr.
6. 55 – Brian Vickers
7. 1 – Jamie McMurray
8. 42 – Juan Pablo Montoya
9. 78 – Kurt Busch
10. 29 – Kevin Harvick
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