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4 Burning Questions: Will Tony Stewart’s Chase End in Dover?

Will Tony Stewart’s Chase End in Dover?

Tony Stewart has been a tough driver to put an expectation sticker on in regards to this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

He’s like that piece of laundry you don’t know whether is a dark or a light. Where do you put it?

Sitting 11 points below the cutoff zone of 12th entering the third and final round of the Round of 16 at Dover International Speedway, Stewart seems to stand out among his fellow competitors in hot water.

2016 Daytona II CUP Jimmie Johnson Tony Stewart Dale Earnhardt Jr John Harrelson NKP
It’s now or never for the three-time champ. (Photo: John Harrelson NKP)

Unlike Chris Buescher, who was highly expected to not advance through to the Round of 12, Stewart had a successful summer stretch, achieving four top-5 finishes in a five-race run. With numbers like that, the No. 14 proved to have that little extra to be competitive again.

Behind Jamie McMurray and Austin Dillon, two drivers who have grabbed a solid hold of consistency since the summer, Stewart, however, has only one top 20 in the last six races.

Numbers like this make an 11-point gap seem no too bad. By no means is Sunday a must-win for Stewart, neither will it spell a stellar finish to make it happen.

Much of Stewart’s fate lies among his close competitors and how they perform on Sunday. These elimination races have seemed to bring out the best in drivers in past years. Going back to last year’s event, it was a nail-biting fight to the end with McMurray, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kyle Busch to decide the final spots in the Round of 12 while Kevin Harvick brought home the trophy when he needed to.

Simply put, the top-4 finishers were racing for everything.

A massive difference this time around is where Stewart sits in the bigger picture come two months from now. Sunday may be Stewart’s last chance to win a Sprint Cup championship. Performing an already surprising comeback after missing the opening eight rounds of the season due to a back injury in the offseason, Stewart will crave a victory – like his second-to-last victory from 2013 at Dover – to continue his last battle with a knockout.

Can We Expect Another Monster Thriller in Dover?

The springtime of 2016 saw a breath of fresh air swarm into Dover International Speedway, as competition, unpredictability and a sorely missed upper groove returned to the Monster Mile.

As the race took multiple turns on its head, the final 35-lap stretch could not have been more straightforward: Matt Kenseth, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and a race win on the line… go.

Appropriately occurring in the First State, the most recent Dover event indeed gave us a spectacle worth remembering. As we embark on a crucial elimination race this Sunday at the 1-mile track, could this go-round with Miles being even better? I can’t see why not.

With drama an easy find lately at Dover, with a four-driver elimination set for Sunday, the names in the conversation alone with make for some storylines to watch out for. Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Tony Stewart and about seven others can easily go from safe to gone and visa versa.

One driver I’d put in the must-win book is Chris Buescher, who comes into Dover 30 points behind the cutoff zone. Expected to not advance into the Round of 12 to begin with, the Pocono-winning Front Row Motorsports team will not see this as a failed opportunity, as they sailed above most preseason predictions.

On the opposite end of the grid, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch sit a solid 35 and 33 points to the good, guaranteeing advancements unless catastrophe hits either team on Sunday.

Then there’s the middle men, the group of 11 drivers who can’t afford a bad stroke of luck at Dover. With Kenseth and Joey Logano sitting more than a half-race of points ahead of 13th, Denny Hamlin,  Jimmie Johnson, Elliott, Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch find themselves playing with 15 or more markers across the 400 miles to come.

But the battle that could gel well with Dover will be between Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Larson and McMurray. Similar to last year’s position, McMurray will need to step up and perform if a high-placed Chaser doesn’t have an issue.

Throw in Austin Dillon, who like McMurray, sits five points behind Larson, and soon-retiree Tony Stewart [back 11 points] and Sunday is almost certainly going to be a fight to the end. Then again, what’s new?

Will Aric Almirola Cap Off Tough Season with Dover Performance?

For the first time in the three-year-old Chase Grid format, Aric Almirola was not a factor in breaking the top 16.

With rain washing the July race at Daytona out in 2014, Almirola used his first victory to make the 2014 Chase. With a top-5 run going in the opening round at Chicagoland, a blown motor that day hurt a sixth-place the following week at New Hampshire, ending Almirola’s championship run in the Round of 16.

2016 Daytona Unlimited CUP Aric Almirola Richard Petty NKP
With the whole RPM organization without a top-10 finish, Dover could be the place to end that for Almirola. (Photo: NKP)

In 2015, the Richard Petty Motorsports driver contended for the win in the regular-season finale at Richmond, fighting for a Chase spot if he could capture the late win. Despite coming up short, everybody knew Almirola was there.

The same can’t be said for 2016. Without a top-10 finish through 28 races, the fifth-year driver sits 26th in points with only one lap led. With career-low numbers in both average start [23.2] and finish [23.6], Almirola could use one thing at a time like this: Dover.

With a knack for the concrete surface, the 32-year-old grabbed top 5s in both Dover events last year, with the second fifth-place effort in the fall event topping his career-high top 5s in a single season [3].

Though his 2016 campaign has been tough with only five top-15 finishes, he captured a 14th-place result in the fall event at Bristol, Dover’s sister concrete track.

Like the 16th-century English writer John Heywood said: “A hard beginning maketh a good ending.”

For Almirola and the entire No. 43 RPM team, they sure hope this rings true in these final eight weekends of racing.

Will Added Experience Spell First XFINITY Win For Alex Bowman?

Alex Bowman has a few more miles under his belt since his last trip to Dover, Delaware.

Following Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s concussion in July, it was Bowman who was tapped to split the No. 88 Chevrolet with Jeff Gordon for the last half of the season, as Earnhardt announced his plans to return to racing in 2017.

With four races with Hendrick Motorsports, Bowman has been riding high with some of the quickest equipment in NASCAR. For a young short track racer in today’s market, it’s a story worth noticing.

Though he wont be wheeling a Cup car this weekend at Dover, he returns to another No. 88 ride with JR Motorsports in the XFINITY Series.

Jumping back four months, Dover was the location of Bowman’s first race of 2016 with JRM in the May event. Qualifying fifth, the 23-year-old led 33 laps en route to a third-place result.

Since then, five more top 10s and a pole at Michigan have given the Arizona boy more than one reason to eye a trophy this Saturday at the Monster Mile.

That whole saying that drivers get rusty after a few weeks, months or years out of the seat, I just don’t buy it after Bowman’s drive in May. Above all, it’s the level of pressure on the shoulders of the driver that effects the performance. With both against him then, Bowman now has the confidence and the track time to spoil a Chase advancement come Saturday.

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About Zach Catanzareti

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Growing up in Easton, Pa., Zach Catanzareti has grown his auto racing interest from fandom to professional. Joining Frontstretch in 2015, Zach enjoys nothing more than being at the track, having covered his first half-season of 18 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. With experience behind the wheel, behind the camera and in the media center, he thrives on being an all-around reporter.

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