When looking at the schedule of the 10 races in the Chase, most people would have pointed to Talladega as the track where both wrecks and bad luck could turn the tide in the championship. But in Dover on Sunday, it was the Monster Mile played tough as the new Talladega asphalt, taking a swing at some of the biggest names in the sport – and making contact. By the end of the day, 13 caution flags had waved, and four Chasers found themselves finishing 20th or lower. As is always the case when some people find misfortune, others reap the benefits. That was certainly the case for a few of the Chase drivers, who left Dover with finishes a few places higher than where they had been running most of the day.
So, which drivers left Dover feeling fortunate for surviving the Monster, and which drivers felt like they had gone 12 rounds with the heavyweight champ? Read this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Chase to find out.
Tony Stewart: After being on self proclaimed “suicide watch for the first 200 laps,” Stewart and his team were able to hit upon something the No. 20 Home Depot Chevy liked in the final half of Sunday’s race, ending an otherwise frustrating day by winding up in ninth place. Smoke’s third straight top-10 finish was good enough to bump him up to second in the standings, just two points behind Jeff Gordon. With a win and five top 10s at Kansas, Stewart owns the lowest average finish (6.5) there of any of the Chasers, putting him in a good position to leave Kansas on the top of the heap.
Gordon: Like Stewart, Gordon had a daunting task ahead of him after starting the race in 28th place, feeling happy to just survive the carnage that ensued during the race. His 11th-place finish was good enough keep him on top of the standings; but with less than 20 points separating him from sixth place, he certainly can’t feel comfortable. However, he should feel confident heading into Kansas, a track that he has won at twice in his career. Last year, he was 39th in this race after his engine let go in the latter stages. But engines haven’t been a problem for Gordon this year, and he should give anyone a run for their money if they try to take his lead.
Carl Edwards: As of Monday night, Edwards sits third in the standings following his third win of the season at Dover. But after failing post-race inspection, a penalty is likely ahead for the No. 99 team. Should he receive the standard 25-point penalty, Edwards would drop to sixth as the series hits the Midwest this weekend. The penalty will hurt, but shouldn’t be fatal as Edwards looks to earn his first championship. He’s was a solid 12th at New Hampshire and taking the win at Dover before heading to Kansas, a track where he has two straight top 10s, should give him the momentum to overcome any deduction he receives from NASCAR.
Clint Bowyer: Bowyer wasn’t able to back up his first career Cup victory with a second straight top 10… but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Following a poor qualifying effort, Bowyer had to share a pit stall with the No. 55, and was involved in the wreck between Kyle Petty and Denny Hamlin on-track in which he was nothing more than an innocent victim. But with a rash of late-race cautions, the No. 07 team was able to make repairs and help get Bowyer a 12th-place finish, keeping him sixth in the points heading to his home state track this Sunday. In his only start at Kansas, Bowyer finished ninth – but with his current momentum, look for him to put in a similar performance this year.
Kyle Busch: Like many other drivers, Busch was just happy to survive at Dover on Sunday… but he almost didn’t. Busch was involved in the “Big One” late in the race, but with minimal damage, he was able to score a fifth-place finish. Busch, currently 10 points behind Gordon in fifth, is the only driver to start off the 2007 Chase with two top-five runs. His results at Kansas have been a bit more mixed – he finished 21st his first time out and seventh in this race last year.
Jimmie Johnson: Most drivers wouldn’t wish other drivers bad luck, but that’s exactly what helped Johnson claim his 14th-place finish at Dover on Sunday. Johnson qualified on the pole and ran well in the early stages of the race before a flat tire forced him to pit under green and dropped him several laps to the leaders. But when other drivers started to fall out of the race, Johnson climbed up the scoring chart. He’s still out of the top spot for now, but things could have been much worse than a four-point deficit heading to Kansas… that’s for sure. While he’s winless at Kansas Speedway, the No. 48 still has three top 10s in five starts to his credit… so while Johnson may be a bit down after Dover, he’s certainly not out.
Martin Truex Jr.: Coming off a fifth-place finish in the Chase opener at Loudon, many people looked for Truex to complete the Dover sweep this weekend. The win didn’t wind up transpiring, but Truex was lucky not to be swept out altogether after being involved in the late-race 12-car melee on Sunday. The team worked hard to keep Truex on track, though, and his resulting 13th-place finish keeps him in the thick of the title hunt. He has just one race at Kansas under his belt, where he finished 11th, but with seven straight top 15s; including four top 10s, lack of experience isn’t a real cause for concern.
Matt Kenseth: Dover was a tough race for several drivers in the Chase, but perhaps for none more so than Kenseth. After leading a race-high 192 laps, his day went south when his engine expired with just 20 laps to go. The resulting 35th-place finish dropped him to 10th in the standings… but there is a silver lining. Sunday’s race at Dover was Kenseth’s best CoT performance of the season. Still, the team will have to be on top of their game this week if they want to see their Chase hopes stay alive. Sitting 116 points behind Gordon, Kenseth can’t afford another sub 20th-place finish at Kansas like he has posted in three of six races run there.
Jeff Burton: The old adage “it’s better to be lucky than good,” proved to be true for Burton Sunday at Dover. After running towards the back of the field during a large part of the race, Burton and his team continued to work on the car and got it running good enough to take advantage of cars making a late-race exit. His seventh-place finish looks good on paper and moved him up three places to eighth in the standings, but he can’t count on that type of good fortune each week. Burton was fifth at Kansas last season, his only top 10 in six starts at the track; he’ll need another strong finish this year to keep him in contention for his first title.
Kevin Harvick: Once again, tire problems took Harvick out of contention for a strong finish in the Chase. After qualifying seventh, a loose wheel forced a stop under green, putting him two laps down; later in the race, a flat forced a second green flag stop. Like his RCR teammate, Harvick reaped the benefits of others’ misfortunes and wound up a disappointing 20th. While he did finish better than some of his Chase counterparts, believe me, 20th-place finishes just aren’t going to get the job done. In fact, Harvick is now 115 points behind Gordon as the series heads to Kansas, a track where he has an average finish of 17.8. He’ll definitely need more than that to stay in the race for the championship.
Hamlin: Despite a run-in with Petty and a 38th-place finish at Dover, Hamlin remains optimistic about his chances in the Chase. One day after winning the Busch Series race, Hamlin started third and was running in the top five when he made contact with Petty, sending the No. 11 behind the wall for extensive repairs. Hamlin managed to get back out on the track to avoid career DNF number three, but he still took a big hit in the title hunt, leaving 158 behind Gordon instead of losing only a handful of points here or there. Two finishes outside the top 10 aren’t how Hamlin wanted to start the Chase and things, might not get better at Kansas, a track where his career best finish is 18th.
Kurt Busch: Busch entered the Chase as one of the hottest drivers on the circuit, but a 25th-place run at Loudon, followed by a 28th-place finish this Sunday has cooled Busch’s efforts to earn his second championship. He looked poised to make a big turnaround at Dover; after starting the race in fourth, he stayed in the top 10 the majority of the day and was sixth when he lost a tire and hit the outside wall, collecting another 11 cars in the process. Hopefully for Busch and his fans, a reversal of fortune is in order… but not likely. His average finish of 20.8 at Kansas is lowest among the Chasers, making his bid to repeat an uphill climb.
Next up is a trip to the great plains of Kansas, where you can glide down the yellow brick road or just as easily be swept up in a devastating twister. Can Kurt Busch finally turn in a performance like his little brother and find the top 10? Will Edwards be able to make up the ground he will most likely lose from hanging too low at Dover? Can veteran RCR teammates Harvick and Burton catch up to their young teammate Bowyer? Will Hamlin’s run-in with Petty get him motivated to find the top 10 for the first time at Kansas? We’ll just have to wait until next week to find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Nextel Cup Chase for the Championship.