It was supposed to be a history-making moment. NASCAR’s first ever “Chase elimination” race, the lynchpin of its new format was supposed to make Dover a “Game 7” atmosphere, knocking potential title contenders out of the prizefight early. After Loudon, where top drivers got knocked around like pinballs, the bar was set for aggression, strategy, even panic as so many hovered around the “cutline,” whittling an expanded postseason field from 16 to a far more manageable 12. Dover’s Monster Mile, known in the old days as a “survival type” track, provided an opportunity to build on that momentum, drivers jockeying for position late, using whatever means possible to keep their hope alive for a championship. Jeff Gordon? Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? One bad break, one bout with the wall and they would be in serious trouble. Fans weren’t immune to that potential at Dover; the crowd Sunday, lacking for the past several races was the best one the track had drawn in years. Everyone was looking for a memorable moment.
Instead, what we got was… monotony.
Once the smoke cleared, Jeff Gordon comfortably taking the checkered flag, the Chase landscape had changed… hardly at all. Gordon rounded out a 1-2-3 trio of drivers, joining Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski who were arguably strongest heading into the postseason. Apparently, this year, everyone was showing their cards because the names topping the podium don’t seem to raise an eyebrow to date.
Nor do the four drivers we saw eliminated Sunday. AJ Allmendinger? A valiant effort, for certain this season with JTG Daugherty, but for that single-car effort, just making the Chase was their championship. Ditto for Aric Almirola, whose Richard Petty Motorsports team could have made it but suffered from a mechanical mishap right off the bat. Neither one was on anybody’s list to make the Final Four at Homestead.
As for bigger names? From bigger teams? Greg Biffle made the field on points, after a season of struggle with Roush Fenway Racing but only has three top-5 finishes. Never higher than seventh in the standings, all season long his No. 16 team is clearly several steps behind. And Kurt Busch, despite a summer of building consistency, dug himself a hole so deep, early on he nearly fell outside the top 30 in points during spring. That would have kept him out of the field even with an impressive spring victory at Martinsville. The No. 41 Chevrolet, in its first season running full-time, recovered well, sneaking inside the top 20 in points by Chase time but could never run at the level of its biggest rivals: Penske Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, and Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick.
All those drivers made the final 12, easily, on a day where their only drama surrounded Harvick’s broken valve stem. That bad luck moment, cutting down a left-front tire, kept the No. 4 car from leading 300+ laps and coasting to the finish line on his own planet. Keselowski, Logano, third-place Jimmie Johnson, and winner Gordon paced themselves up front, keeping time while knowing they’re all equal, again next week under NASCAR’s new format. In their case, knowing one mistake was all it took actually hurt the competition rather than helped it; why take a chance? If the goal is simply to “move on,” well, slamming the wall and running 41st by being aggressive isn’t the way to do it.
Of those drivers expected to contend for the title, only Earnhardt, Jr. heads into the next round with a series of major question marks. The 12-driver field remaining is mostly what everyone expected: 100% Hendrick (four cars), 100% Penske (two cars), 100% Gibbs (three cars), and a sprinkling of “best of the rest.” (Harvick, Carl Edwards from Roush Fenway Racing and Ryan Newman from Richard Childress Racing, respectively). Unless you believe in Newman, who’s made it this far by top-10ing everyone to death, your Cinderella stories have all turned into a pumpkin rather quickly.
It was a day when Goliath beat David, the mammoth weight of simply “making it” to the next round beating down the racing at a track where the Goodyear tire compound has been off for years. Passing is impossible, then at a one-mile oval where the cars are just running too fast; running in place, to the point of boredom is the “new” Dover, with speeds far too close together. 40 of 43 cars finished the race, only one DNF was due to a wreck (Michael Annett) and bouts with the wall were so minimal, Dover could realistically have run all 400 miles caution free.
Sure, there was a bit of drama surrounding Kasey Kahne, a loose wheel and his fight to get back into “Chase contention.” His late climb, running down several drivers for position to scrape back up to 20th and inside the top 12 in points was some quality competition worth watching. But it also seemed to be the only thing worth paying attention to in a race that had just 10 lead changes, the fewest for any Dover race in five years. The fireworks just weren’t there; a race billed as “must watch” wound up driving fans to “must sleep” status.
After the race, I typed “NASCAR boring” on Twitter just to gauge a quick experiment on fan reaction. I saw nearly two dozen comments, fans frustrated over what they saw and urging the sport to make changes to the playoff system – or ditch it for good. I then put in “NASCAR exciting” and got… a grand total of about five comments. Some of those were actually tongue-in-cheek, making fun of the sport instead of praising it. A check once again, at press time saw a few more comments trickle in, although it’s notable a few of them were from “official” NASCAR-aligned personnel (like Team PR people, for example).
I can tell you one thing I never saw trending on Twitter all day, and that’s the AAA 400 or anything associated with Dover. The NFL, the Japanese volcano, Americans appeared to be interesting in just about anything else. The momentum, three races into the Chase, had fallen flat.
Perhaps the Russian Roulette wheel of the Chase’s second round, ending at Talladega will perk up interest and lead to a few big surprises. But so far, three races in, the favorites are still the favorites. They all start next week created equal, the points reset to 3,000 and there’s no real incentive to stand out from the pack… just simply survive, then conquer down the line.
Note “survive,” not entertain. And in a year with a new playoff format, designed to make the sport more entertaining the end result fizzled quickly into the type of single-file slogfest NASCAR’s been known for lately – not what anyone’s been aiming for.