Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
While the focus Sunday was on the Chase, there were a few non-Chase drivers looking to make a splash, and Aric Almirola played the spoiler fairly well, grabbing a top-five finish. Almirola didn’t miss the Chase by much while running for a team with much less funding than the ones who did make it in, and he hasn’t backed down an iota in his approach. While mid-tier teams often had great finishes here and there a decade and a half ago, it’s rarer these days, and Almirola has been consistently strong despite his team’s smaller resources.
What… beyond the drivers’ control affected the action?
One thing that affected everyone this weekend was the rain that washed out all of Friday and some of Saturday on-track activities, leaving the Sprint Cup teams with little practice time, which spilled over into the race as many teams struggled with handling. The Xfinity Series drivers had no time on track before their race, so the Cup teams had it better than they did. Did it hurt the racing overall? Probably. But weather wasn’t the only factor.
While aerodynamic dependence, and by association, aero push, get a lot of play at the 1.5- and 2-mile tracks, it was also a large, and unpleasant, factor on Sunday. While it should be hard to pass in a race, it should be mostly because the other drivers are making it hard, not because the cars are so unstable in the air that a pass attempt is next to impossible. While it’s likely that NASCAR will implement the low-downforce package it tested a few times this season at the intermediate tracks, whether or not the sanctioning body will make the change at the mile-long ovals is less clear. The hope is that there is a solution in the works, because the lack of passing ability should not be determining so many races.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Matt Kenseth won the pole based on his point lead after qualifying was washed out. He led the first 23 laps and would lead twice more for a total of three circuits, but like the rest of the field, was simply outclassed by the No. 4 of Kevin Harvick.
Jeff Gordon won this race a year ago but hasn’t seen Victory Lane since. On Sunday, Gordon did what he had to do advance, but never contended for a top finish. It’s hard to believe that one year has made such a difference for Gordon, who appeared to be at the top of his game for most of the 2014 season. Yes, Hendrick Motorsports is a step behind the competition, but could Gordon’s final season also be hampered by the pressure he put on himself to perform? He joked about just that during the media tour last January, but maybe there was a grain of truth.
When… did it all go sideways?
For Jimmie Johnson, things went downhill early and for the worst possible reason. A seal in his drive line, probably a $5 part, broke as Johnson was working his way toward the front, sending him to the garage for repairs. He got back out, but in order for his title hopes to stay alive, a couple others would have had to meet with disaster, and that did not happen. Johnson, the top seed just three weeks ago, will not compete for a seventh title. That’s an unfortunate side-effect of this Chase. Advertised as being created to be a championship about wins, the Chase made one bad race worth more than Johnson’s four wins (second in the series behind Kenseth’s five). Among the eight drivers continuing on, only one has more wins than Johnson, four have more top fives, and four have more top 10s. While not championship material, neither were some of the drivers who moved on. When one week matters more than an entire season of excellence (and remember, had Harvick not won, he’d also be eliminated), there might be something wrong with the system.
Why… did Kevin Harvick win the race?
Put Harvick’s back against the wall, and he will come out swinging. He proved it during his title run last year and he proved it again on Sunday. There was exactly one way for Harvick to avoid elimination from the Chase at Dover, and that was to win. And Harvick not only won, but he did so in absolutely dominant fashion, leading 355 of 400 laps. But it’s not like Harvick hasn’t had fast cars and suddenly found something this week. He had the best car late at Loudon, and he didn’t get in trouble at Chicago because of a slow car. As the saying goes, the cream rises to the top. Harvick’s win shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. He’s the defending champion for a reason.
How… did the little guys do?
The three best:
Martin Truex Jr.; Furniture Row Racing: Truex looked like he had a better car than his 11th-place finish indicated, but he did exactly what he needed to in the big picture, moving up four spots to fifth in driver points. Truex is doing everything he needs to to set himself up for a possible title run in Homestead. To win it, he’ll need to pick up the pace a bit, but he’s been so consistently strong this season that it’s hard to find reason not to pick him to make the final four.
Casey Mears: Germain Racing: Mears had a strong finish among his peers, but overall, it wasn’t as pretty as his position on the list might indicate. Mears and his No. 13 team struggled all day to find handling, though an outstanding save he made after being squeezed in traffic was one for the highlight reel (and had he spun, it could have had huge, and ugly, Chase implications). Overall, Mears and his team should be pleased with the progress they have made this year, though they look capable of a few more top-20 and top-15 finishes.
Justin Allgaier; HScott Motorsports: Like Mears, Allgaier didn’t have his best day, but it was solid enough to beat most of his direct peers. Allgaier is now driving for a job next year, and while he needs consistency – some of which comes from better equipment – he’s done a good job of building this team to a much more competitive status than a year ago… but he’ll lose the seat to Clint Bowyer after this season. It would be a shame if he doesn’t find a ride, as he’s got potential.
All the rest:
|78||Martin Truex Jr.||Furniture Row Racing||Furniture Row Chevy||9th||11th
Started at rear after having to fix flared side skirt; was 27th by lap 17; ran conservatively most of race
|13||Casey Mears||Germain Racing||GEICO Chevy||22nd||24th
Narrowly missed triggering multi-car crash; struggled with handling most of race
|51||Justin Allgaier||HScott Motorsports||Fraternal Order of Eagles Chevy||30th||27th
He’s racing for a ride and has had some good runs; struggled with handling all day at Dover but good finish among smaller teams
|35||Cole Whitt||Front Row Motorsports||Docksode/Rinnai Ford||31st||28th
Reported that car improved throughout the run
|47||AJ Allmendinger||JTG Daugherty Racing||Hungry Jack Chevy||23rd||29th
Spun trying to get to pit road lap 311
|38||David Gilliland||Front Row Motorsports||MDS Transportation Ford||32nd||30th
Car was tight for most of the day; lots of adjustments to make it turn better
|7||Alex Bowman||Tommy Baldwin Racing||Chevy||35th||32nd
Team and Bowman have sounded optimistic in recent weeks. Improvement in the works?
|98||Reed Sorenson||Premium Motorsports||Ford||40th||33rd
Veteran Sorenson not the problem here… team need to reevaluate a lot this off-season
|83||Matt DiBenedetto||BK Racing||Cosmo Motors Toyota||37th||34th
Has been the team’s best driver this year with a solid rookie season
|26||JJ Yeley||BK Racing||Maxim Fantasy Sports Toyota||42nd||35th
The No. 23 has struggled to find speed with both Burton and Yeley in the seat
|32||Josh Wise||GO FAS Racing||Schwarze Sweepers/Corvetteparts.net Ford||41st||36th
Contact with No. 23 to bring lap 3 caution
|46||Michael Annett||HScott Motorsports||Pilot Flying J Chevy||38th||37th
Had difficulty getting off the turns late; also issue with corded tires earlier in the day
|33||Alex Kennedy||Circle Sport||Chevy||36th||38th
Kennedy back in the car after a few weeks out of the seat
|62||Timmy Hill||Premium Motorsports||Chevy||43rd||39th
Is two cars too many for this team? Second car has not helped them improve.
|40||Landon Cassill||Hillman-Smith Motorsports||CRC Brakleen Chevy||33rd||40th
Decent run but had engine let go inside of 40 to go
|34||Brett Moffitt||Front Row Motorsports||CSX Play It Safe Ford||34th||42nd
Slow on track around 2/3 point; was able to continue but heavy damage with 47 to go after a cut tire
|23||Jeb Burton||BK Racing||Dr. Pepper/Estes Toyota||39th||43rd
Spun on lap 3, little visible damage but reported “something’s tore up.” Got into the wall hard on lap 192 (flat tire)
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