These first two weeks of the Chase have gone by relatively quickly, and have definitely generated some surprising events. For instance, had you told me that Kevin Harvick would be 23 points out of the 12th spot and in danger of failing to advance to the next round, I wouldn’t have believed you. While I understand that things happen and sometimes progress takes a turn for the worse, Harvick has been too strong this season for him to be in such a position.
And, yet, there he sits. Though he doesn’t have to win next week in Dover in order to advance to the next round… that’s probably what it’s going to take. After wrecking at Chicagoland, due to a cut tire, and running out of fuel with three laps to go on Sunday in New Hampshire, he now has no other choice but to go to Dover and shoot for the best finish possible. He absolutely cannot afford to have another race like the last two.
However, Harvick is not the only driver in such a position. Harvick is one of the bottom four drivers in the top 16. Just in case you need a refresher on how this Chase works, 13th-16th are eliminated from the Chase after next weekend’s race in Dover. While they don’t all have to win to move onto the next round, that’s the best way to be able to.
For Harvick, he’d have to win at a track where he’s never won at before. What are the chances for him and the others who need to improve their position or be eliminated? We’ll take a closer look:
Kyle Busch – Busch finished 37th in Loudon after an issue with the right-front tire caused him to slam into the outside wall. He was still running at the end of the race, albeit 38 laps down after spending numerous laps in the garage area to repair the damage. The poor finish leaves him just one point behind 12th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The easiest thing for Busch to do in this case would be to out-race Earnhardt and the other bubble drivers, but racing just a handful of other drivers is difficult to do and hard to keep track of. Plus, Busch isn’t the type of driver to race the guys around him in points. He’s all about winning, plain and simple.
The simplest way to advance to the next round, then, is to win, and Busch is no stranger to Victory Lane in Dover. He has two victories at the Monster Mile, nine top-fives, and 13 top 10s in 21 career starts at that track. Though Busch’s most recent result at Dover earlier this spring is a bit concerning (36th because of a crash), Busch finished 10th in the fall race last season. Considering the hot streak Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have been on recently, however, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see the No. 18 in Victory Lane this weekend in Dover.
Paul Menard – If I’m being honest, I didn’t expect Menard to move past the first round and that’s not changing now. Menard’s consistency has been admirable no doubt, but he’s going to need to show more speed and do a little bit better than 17th and 15th – his first two results in the Chase, respectively – to advance.
In all fairness to Menard, though, he is tied with Busch points-wise and also only sits one point outside of the top 12. Again, a top 10 finish and a poor result from one of the bubble drivers would be all Menard would need to advance to the next round.
Dover is actually a decent track for Menard. Though he only has three top 10s in 16 career starts, two of those top 10s came in the last three Dover races. Menard finished eighth in the Dover spring race and 16th in the 2014 fall race.
I don’t see Menard advancing, but the margin between himself and 12th is enough that he could realistically still pull it off.
Kevin Harvick – Harvick is kind of in trouble. For the defending champion, a win is certainly not out of the question, but 23 points is a lot to overcome and winning a race is not easy. That was never more clear than in Loudon where just three more laps worth of fuel could have been the difference between a desperate situation in Dover or a stress-free week in the final event of this first round.
Harvick’s 21st-place finish wouldn’t be so terrible had he not suffered a 42nd-place run last week in Chicago. Again, he doesn’t have to win to make it into the Chase, but he needs to either win or expect some bad luck from a few other drivers to be able to make it out of the Challenger Round.
Harvick has 29 career starts at Dover but no victories. His average finish is 14.7 and he has four career top fives and 13 career top 10s. He finished second in the spring race earlier this season, however, and led 91 laps. He won the pole in this race last season but finished 14th.
I don’t think it’s out of the question that Harvick makes it in, but will be surprised if it takes anything short of a victory to do it, a task that is much easier said than done.
Clint Bowyer – Bowyer’s penalty is really hurting him here, but let’s go best-case scenario and assume by some miracle that the No. 15 team wins their appeal on Wednesday and the penalty is completely overturned. Bowyer is still 14 points behind Earnhardt at a track where he’s done good but not great and in a season where Michael Waltrip Racing struggles to show the same sort of speed that fellow Toyota team JGR has. 14 points is not insurmountable but, considering that Bowyer finished 26th in Loudon and has finished outside of the top 15 in three of the last four races, it’s not looking good for him.
Worst case scenario is that the penalty stays the same and Bowyer remains 39 points behind 12th place and in that case, a win is virtually all that is going to do it for him. Like Harvick, Bowyer has never won at Dover. Unlike Harvick, Bowyer’s best finish at the track was fourth in the spring race last season. He finished ninth in the 2014 fall race and ninth again in the spring race earlier this season.
If the penalty is upheld (or slightly reduced), that finish won’t do it and the No. 15 team doesn’t have the speed necessary to win. Short of a strategy call at the end of Dover, I think this team is done with the Chase after next week. Even if the penalty is overturned, it’s still unlikely they will be able to put up the numbers necessary to advance to the next round.