ONE: And Then, There Were 12
The drop of the checkered flag at Dover ended the championship hopes of four drivers, while 12 others remain standing, headed into the (mostly) hometown race for them.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) October 3, 2016
Chris Buescher, whose No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team didn’t have the speed to truly compete with the rest of the top 16, will finish the year no worse than 16th in points, a giant leap above where he would have finished without the rain-shortened victory from Pocono. Meanwhile, Tony Stewart narrowly missed the cut by just 11 points, despite a 13th-place finish at Dover, something that can largely be attributed to sub-top-15 finishes in the first two races at Chicagoland and New Hampshire.
For Chip Ganassi Racing, it was a one-two punch when both Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson were eliminated. Early on, Larson lost power, forcing him down pit road where he lost a lap while the team worked on repairs. And to add insult to injury, the No. 42 team was busted for too many men over the pit wall, a pass-through penalty that cost him another two laps. Meanwhile, McMurray suffered an engine failure just shy of 200 laps in. Larson and McMurray finished 25th and 40th, respectively.
“It’s unfortunate that both the No. 42 (Kyle Larson) and the No. 1 had a problem today,” McMurray said after his engine failure. “But, it is what it is and that’s why we race. I’m proud of my team and proud of our guys and all the hard work they’ve put in. It stinks that it’s over this way, but we get to race next week. So, we’ll come back and try to do it again.”
Of course the beneficiary to CGR teammates’ poor luck at Dover was Austin Dillon, who leapfrogged over the pair and into the next round of the Chase on the strength of an eighth-place finish. Dillon joins Martin Truex, Jr., Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and Chase Elliott in the Round of 12.
TWO: Tony Stewart’s bid for a fourth championship is over
In a year that saw Tony Stewart sit out for the first eight races, many wondered if the owner/driver would even make the Chase, but a win at Sonoma gave him the opportunity to go out on top and hoist the championship trophy along the way. However, it clearly wasn’t meant to be despite a respectable 13th-place finish at Dover.
“I’m pretty excited about our day,” Stewart said in a team release. “We were much better than we were yesterday. Really proud of our team. We kept making it better all day. That is as good as we had.”
For Stewart, who has become increasingly frustrated with the role engineering plays each week, the season is far from over.
“We gave it 110 percent today,” Stewart said. “We’ve had a really good year, and we won’t let this get us down. There’s lots of racing left this season.”
Whether he gets another shot at Victory Lane this season remains to be seen, but you can bet Stewart will walk away with his head held high, no matter what. After all, he’ll finish in the top 16 in the standings, which will be his best points showing since 2012 when he finished ninth. Besides, not many can say they’re a three-time Sprint Cup champion with 49 wins and 307 top 10s.
THREE: Is Martin Truex, Jr. Your 2016 Sprint Cup Series Champion?
First, third, first, seventh, first.
Those are Martin Truex, Jr.’s race results for the last five events, but perhaps what’s more important is the statement the No. 78 team has made just three races into the Chase. An average finish of third, combined with 360 of 970 laps led (37 percent) can mean only one thing: Truex could end up winning it all this year.
“I guess right now it’s just our time,” Truex, Jr. said of the No. 78 team’s success in the Chase. “We’ve got a great team. We’ve got confidence, we’ve got momentum, and we’re just rolling with it and taking it one week at a time, and hopefully we can continue this for seven more weeks.”
While dominance in the first round of the Chase doesn’t always translate to success by the time the championship round rolls around, the reality is that the No. 78 team has been strong all season long. A quick look at the year’s results doesn’t tell the whole story, one of a year that’s seen dominant runs cut short for one reason or another.
“Throughout the summer, we led so many laps and had so many great race cars and so many great weekends that would just — things would happen,” Truex explained. “Sometimes it was just rotten luck, sometimes it was mistakes or just circumstances that didn’t play out. But I think that the biggest thing is we just kept our heads in the game. We stayed focused on the things that truly matter, and when all that bad luck went away, here we are. I mean, it’s just been amazing.”
The bottom line is that any one of the 11 other teams moving into the Round of 12 that isn’t paying attention to Truex and the No. 78 team is sorely mistaken. After all, this group has shown it has the strength to take the battle all the way to Homestead.
FOUR: Erik Jones is on the cusp of being eliminated from the XFINITY Chase
When the XFINITY Series headed to Kentucky Speedway last weekend, Erik Jones entered as the number one seed and a favorite to win the championship after scoring four wins and 16 top 10s in the first 26 races. But after finishes of 28th and 16th at Kentucky and Dover, respectively, suddenly, he is just one race away from being eliminated for the Chase.
It all began with Kentucky when Jones, who was running inside the top 5 at the time, slid up the track and into Ty Dillon, wrecking both drivers. The ensuing 28th-place finish dropped him to the lowest point he’s been in the standings since the second race of the season.
Heading into Dover, Jones had high hopes of repeating the trip to Victory Lane he had made earlier in the year, and the weekend started off strong. After leading the field to green, Jones led 54 of the first 56 laps before problems with the right front tire dropped him six spots on a lap 69 restart. He later found himself two laps down, struggling with grip, and while it appeared Jones might be able to pull out a top 10, a late-race pit stop for gas dropped him to a 16th-place finish.
Leaving Dover, Jones finds himself ninth, just four markers behind the cutoff line.
“We’re a lot better than that,” Jones said of his run at Dover. “It’s pretty embarrassing not to even be in the Chase right now for the next round. We have a lot of work to do and we have to have a good run at Charlotte for sure. It’s just unfortunate, it’s just something that I never would have seen it coming. Pretty disappointed.”
But despite the mounting pressure, Jones appears to have a level head, knowing that he needs a clean race and a solid finish at Charlotte, something the No. 20 team is plenty capable of achieving.
“We have a good team, we just have to do it right,” he explained. “Hopefully we have a better car next week at Charlotte to go out and hopefully get into the next round. A lot of work and a lot of pressure, but I think we can do it.”
While a four-point deficit isn’t all that much to overcome, Just ask Kyle Larson, who was above the cutoff line for the Sprint Cup Chase heading into Dover but instead suffered problems and found himself on the outside looking in.
FIVE: Welcome home, teams
This weekend, Sprint Cup and XFINITY series teams get the chance to spend some extra time at home as both series head to Charlotte Motor Speedway. The annual breast cancer awareness weekend begins on Thursday with the Better Half Dash, a Bandolero race that gives the women of NASCAR a chance to turn the tables on their significant others and race to raise money for charity.
The XFINITY race on Friday night holds the Chase hopes of 12 drivers in its grasp, and four will walk away disappointed when the checkered flag flies. Meanwhile, the Sprint Cup Series begins the Round of 12 at the same place where Martin Truex, Jr. dominated in the Coca-Cola 600, leading all but eight laps en route to Victory Lane.
Saturday night, under the lights, at Charlotte? Bring it on!