Friday, September 27, 2013

Chasing the Championship: Previewing the AAA 400 at Dover

Scoring pylon


Dover International Speedway plays host to the Sprint Cup Series this weekend for the third race in The Chase. Matt Kenseth has a 14-point advantage over teammate Kyle Busch and an 18-point lead over Jimmie Johnson.

The Monster Mile can be treacherous and can bite when least expected. Look for excitement this weekend and a possible shake-up in the standings.

Here’s how the Chasers stack up as they go against Miles.

1. Matt Kenseth (points leader)
by: Stephanie Stuart

Some may say it's lonely at the top, but not for Matt Kenseth. He seems to be holding onto the top position in the Chase for Sprint Cup just fine, thank you very much. He has the support of his family and a team owner and crew chief who believe in him. I'd say that's a pretty good place to be heading to Dover International Speedway this weekend, a track that has been good to Kenseth in the past.

After winning the first two Chase races at Chicago and New Hampshire, Kenseth comes into the weekend with a 14 point lead over Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch. Many are wondering if he can be stopped. Those who said it would take a while for this new team to come together are eating their words, after Kenseth has won a career high seven races. After the wining at New Hampshire last weekend, where a normally statuesque Kenseth got out of the car and gave an almost teary interview, he was asked later about the emotion in his voice. He said he wasn't emotional at all, just happy.

He should be. In 29 starts at the Monster Mile, which he considers one of his favorite tracks, Kenseth has won twice. He has also amassed 13 top fives, 18 top 10s and one pole. He has led 775 laps, and has an average finish of 13.6. Comparably, the Chaser with the best average finish at Dover is Carl Edwards, who averages 8.6, but has only 18 starts at the track.

Kenseth has a lot of momentum coming into this weekend, and looks to keep it going. The 2003 Sprint Cup Champion says he isn't doing anything differently this year. "I don't think there's a magic formula," said Matt earlier this week. "You just have to have more points than whoever finishes second. That's how you win (the title)."

Calm, cool and collected, Kenseth and the 20 team roll into Dover ready to keep their perch atop the leaderboard. And the naysayers will keep eating their words.

2. Kyle Busch (-14)AA Matt Kenseth & Kyle Busch on pit road 6-1-13
By: Rebecca Kivak

To say Kyle Busch is hungry for a win is an understatement. After back-to-back runner-up finishes behind teammate Matt Kenseth, Busch is ready for his turn as the Joe Gibbs Racing driver in Victory Lane. Considering his impressive track record at Dover, Busch could very well find his way there when the checkered flag flies Sunday.

The driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota boasts two wins, eight top fives, 11 tops 10s and an average finish of 13.3 in 17 starts at the Monster Mile. In his last seven races, Busch has finished in the top 10 six times, including seventh one year ago and fourth in the spring.

Busch knows his way up front at the one-mile concrete track – he led a combined 452 laps in the last two races.

With the championship well within his reach, a win at Dover could help Busch eat into Kenseth’s points lead and even supplant his teammate atop the standings.

But it’s the friendly competition that also fuels Busch. He said after New Hampshire he relishes having a teammate like Kenseth who not only pushes him to be better, but together they can push back against the championship field.

“Certainly it's nice to get a strong start,” Busch said at New Hampshire. “There's no doubt about it. You'd rather finish first both weeks than 43rd and get yourself up there and get a strong foundation built to where you can continue on down the road and maybe not have so much pressure on yourself to have to perform to catch up. But that's good that we're both up there like that, that we're able to do that and that we're pushing each other hard and that we're pushing the competition, as well, too.”

3. Jimmie Johnson (-18)
by: Katy Lindamood

Jimmie Johnson has opened The Chase with two top-five finishes, but if he wants to earn his six-pack he’ll have to do better than that. As luck would have it, Dover comes at the perfect time.

Johnson and “Miles the Monster” are old buddies. They’ve been spotted together in victory lane seven times since 2002 including two Chase wins, once in 2009 and again in 2010. Coincidentally, Johnson won the title both years.

In 23 starts at Dover, Team 48 has earned 16 top-10 finishes, three poles and led a total of 2461 laps. Johnson does have two DNF’s at the track, but those came early in his career. His worst finish since 2004 came in this year’s June race, where he finished 17th. Hopefully with the restart rules more clearly defined Johnson won’t find himself in the same position on Sunday.

“I’m not putting my guard down. We still have Talladega and a lot of these tracks can take out multiple cars. You have that risk here if something happens you usually take a car or two with you. I don’t know. I’m certainly looking forward and there are only two guys that I’m paying attention to right now, so in that mindset, sure you can call it a three man race. It’s still way too early to count many out yet,” said Johnson on Friday morning at Dover.  

Only 18 points separate Johnson and leader Matt Kenseth heading into race three. Eighteen points can be made up quickly if Kenseth or Busch falter, so don’t count five-time out of the hunt yet. It’s still very much a three man battle and Johnson has Miles on his side.

AAA Love that Carl Edwards smile 6-2-134. Carl Edwards (-36)
by: Lacy Keyser

Carl Edwards is off to a good start in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He’s fourth in the standings and he’s heading to Dover,  a track where his nickname “Concrete Carl” comes in handy

Edwards has the third best average running position among Cup drivers of 10.3, plus eight top fives, 12 top 10s and one win.  He has an average finish of 8.6 in 18 races. Concrete tracks are his strong point and he could very well be the one to take the checkered flag. 

On the other hand, Edwards hasn't won at Dover since 2007. Maybe Miles has finally got the best of the Roush-Fenway driver.

Edwards started 18th, and finished 14th in the spring Dover race. It is finishes like that the No.99 driver doesn't need with a championship on the line. I’m not counting the No.99 out but I’m also not putting all my eggs in one basket. Edwards needs to up his game and put a win in the books. He already has two victories this season, why not add a third?

5. Greg Biffle, (-38 points)
by: Carol D'Agostino

Although Greg Biffle did not win last Sunday’s Chase race number two in New Hampshire, his third place finish was more than respectable. During the closing laps he gave a primer on blocking against no other than five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Biffle finished the race third, advancing six spots in the standings.

Dover International Speedway has been a good track for Biffle over the years. This weekend should be no exception. His stats at the Monster Mile in 22 career starts include six top fives, 10 top 10s and two wins.

6. Kevin Harvick (-39)
by: Stephanie Stuart

After a disappointing weekend in New Hampshire that saw the 29 team finish 20th, Kevin Harvick needs to turn things around this weekend in Dover. He comes into Dover International Speedway seeded sixth in points, two slots down from where he started in New Hampshire and 39 behind Chase leader Matt Kenseth.

Harvick knows he has some work ahead of him if he is to take the title, but he prefers not to dissect the numbers. "I honestly hadn't looked and seen the points deficit and paid attention to it," he said earlier this week. "For us, it's really about just going out and doing what you can week in and week out, and where you fall is where you fall, and that's the cards you were dealt."

The goal is to win every week, but Harvick knows that's not feasible, so he hopes to put his team in the best position possible every weekend. He says the No. 29 team works off that same strategy, Chase or no Chase.

Harvick and the rest of his team will have to put their nose to the grind this weekend if he is to begin making up that points deficit quickly. In 25 starts at the Monster Mile, Harvick has three top fives and 11 top-10 finishes. His average finish is 15.6, which fares a little worse than some other Chase contenders.

"I think Dover is a fun track to go to," said Harvick. "You can be very aggressive with your driving style there compared to most other places. We'll go there this weekend and run as hard as we can, just like we do every other weekend."

Look for Harvick to drive hard in attempts to have a rebound race this Sunday. He promised that he would leave the 29 team in better shape than he found it when he departs Richard Childress Racing at the end of this season to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, and a championship would taste oh-so-sweet. It would be the fairytale ending in one storybook, and the perfect beginning to another.
AAA Kurt and Patricia smile for the cameras 6-2-13
7. Kurt Busch (-42)
by: Katy Lindamood

Regardless of where Kurt Busch finishes the 2013 season, he can hold his head high. He’s taken a young team to new heights and has started to rebuild the career that was in shambles just two years ago. He may not have a win at Furniture Row, but he’s proven that with the right driver, the single car outfit could be a real contender.

Don’t put your drinking money on Busch this weekend though, save it for Talladega or Charlotte, because Dover hasn’t been kind to the 2004 Champion. In 28 starts at “The Monster Mile” Busch has one win which came in 2011 while driving for Penske Racing. He’s failed to finish the race six times and has 13 finishes outside the top 15.

“We had speed and ran up front. However, we convinced ourselves to stick to a strategy that we thought would deliver the best finish and we ended up putting ourselves in a box,” said Busch regarding the 12th place finish the No. 78 earned in June at Dover.

8. Jeff Gordon (-42)
by: Stephanie Stuart

Gordon enters the Dover race weekend one spot lower in the standings than last week, due to a 15th place finish at New Hampshire. Gordon blames the sub-par finish mostly on himself, after a pit road miscue led to him sliding through the pit box while he was leading the race, costing the team precious time. He is disappointed in himself for the mistake, but says the team will learn from it and move on. Ever the strategist, Gordon has a plan: "We're only a couple points out of fourth, so that's a realistic goal for us right now."

He's moving on to a good place. In 41 starts at Dover International Speedway Gordon has won four times. He also has four poles, 16 top-fives, and 23 top 10s. Dover has been kind to the No. 24 over the years.

"I enjoy racing here because of the high speeds and the high-banked corners and the high-banked straightaways," said Gordon. "But you are constantly on the edge and can find yourself in trouble quickly, whether it be by yourself or in a group of cars."

Lately they see the fire again in Jeff Gordon, and that may be true. Moving up five spots in the points after the first two races is a pretty good start, and Gordon doesn't see it ending there. He is driving hard towards Championship number five and momentum just may be on his side.

Pit stop on No. 39 of Ryan Newman 6-2-139. Ryan Newman (-47)
by: Beth Bence Reinke

The Monster Mile is one of Ryan Newman’s favorite tracks. The short straightaways, steep banking and fast pace are a challenge and he relishes that.

“To me, the characteristics of the track make it both demanding and fun,” Newman said. “It’s really unique how you drop off into the corners and then climb up the hills onto the straightaways. At Dover, the entry into the corners is the toughest part. If you don’t get a good entry, you’re not going to have a good middle or a good exit. You have narrow straightaways and then the track opens a lot in the corners, so there’s a good bit of give-and-take.”

Newman has another reason to like Dover – his three wins at the track. Interestingly, the trio of victories came within two years when he won three of four back-to-back races, in June and September 2003 and September 2004. Historically, Newman has finished in the top 10 almost half the time, in 11 out of 23 career starts. Four poles and 6 top-five finishes round out his stats, and with an average finish of 13.1, he could be a threat on the concrete this weekend.

Sitting ninth in the Chase standings isn’t where Newman wants to be as autumn begins. To have a decent chance at the championship, he needs to move up in points, and quickly. Getting a second win in 2013 with his No. 39 State Water Heater Chevy could catapult him up the rankings and be a boost to his Stewart-Haas Racing team in his last year with them.

Before the race, Newman will get up close and personal with Miles - the 46-foot tall statue, that is - as he answers fan questions in a free Q&A session at the Monster Monument in Victory Plaza on Sunday morning.

Who knows, maybe Miles will whisper the secret to victory in Newman’s ear.

10. Clint Bowyer (-48)
By: Rebecca Kivak

After a lackluster start to the Chase, Clint Bowyer is hoping to turn things around at Dover. Although the one-mile concrete raceway is not considered one of his best tracks, Bowyer’s recent performances here show he’s found a handle on the Monster Mile.

The driver of the No. 15 Raspberry 5-Hour ENERGY Toyota has one top five and eight top 10s in 15 starts at Dover. Upon closer look, Bowyer has finished in the top 10 his last five races here, buoying his average finish to 12.7. Bowyer finished ninth at Dover one year ago and sixth in the spring.

After finishing ninth at Chicagoland and 17th at Loudon, Bowyer is relying on his recent success at Dover to keep alive his title chances.

“This is a big weekend for the 5-hour ENERGY team,” Bowyer said. “We’ve stubbed our toe a little the last couple weeks and haven’t finished as well as we’ve needed to. We have run well at Dover in the past couple years and we are bringing a good car this weekend that dominated at Atlanta but had an engine issue, so hopefully the car will be as good, but with a little better luck at the end.”

Bowyer sits 10th in the standings, 48 points behind leader Matt Kenseth.

It was announced Friday morning that sponsor 5-hour ENERGY will stay with Bowyer and MWR after 2013, putting to rest rumors they would exit.

11. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-62)
By: Rebecca Kivak

Dale Earnhardt Jr. enters Dover after a sixth-place run at New Hampshire lifted the No. 88 National Guard team out of the bottom of the point standings. To get back into the championship hunt, Earnhardt Jr. and his crew chief Steve Letarte are focused on winning races.

The Monster Mile could be a good place to start. Earnhardt Jr. is a past winner here, claiming a memorable victory in the September 2001 race just after the Sept. 11 tragedy. Though Earnhardt Jr.’s record at Dover is less than stellar - five top fives, nine top 10s and an average finish of 17th in 27 starts – his recent finishes show improvement. He has finished fourth, 11th and 10th respectively in his last three races here.

But for Earnhardt Jr., top-10 finishes won’t be good enough to try for the title, and he knows it. Sitting 11th in the championship standings, Earnhardt Jr. is more than a race behind points leader Matt Kenseth. For these last eight races, the No. 88 is in prime position to take chances and go all out for race wins.

“You look at your position in the Chase and you see, all right, we’re way behind,” Earnhardt Jr. said in a teleconference this week. “We’ve got ourselves off to a terrible start in Chicago. So we don’t really need to try to string together decent finishes. That’s not going to do much for us. We’re behind so far that trying to be consistent and just rattle off top 10s if we can, there is no moral victory there. We can gamble on tire strategy and get off-sequence in the race and try to make it work for you and get to Victory Lane.”
Joey Logano being interviewed 5-31-13

12. Joey Logano (-69)
by: Jessica Tow


With two races in the books, Joey Logano has had a less-than-pleasing start to this year’s Chase. After blowing an engine at Chicagoland and finishing in 14th place at Loudon last weekend, Logano currently sits 12th in the points standings and is almost on the outside looking in.

Now if this was the Chase for the Nationwide Series championship, there is no question that Logano would be a top contender going into race number three at the Monster Mile. With three consecutive wins at Dover in the Nationwide Series, he has yet to win a race in the Sprint Cup Series. His only promising Sprint Cup statistic: three consecutive top-10 finishes.

While Dover has not always been Logano’s favorite track, it has grown on him over recent years.

“One of the questions I get asked a lot when we do question and answer sessions is what is your favorite track. Dover would be very high on my list. It’s just a track I feel like I can get around well. I love the speed and the sensation of the banking. It’s really cool to just run around there, especially in qualifying trim. I’m excited to go back with a race in the books between me and (crew chief) Todd (Gordon). I think we are going to be really fast this weekend,” Logano said.

Bottom line: Logano must perform well this weekend in order to stay afloat in the Chase. Anything less than a top-10 finish could do more harm than good. A top five finish would be exponentially beneficial. With a brand new chassis this weekend, anything can happen for Logano and the No. 22 Shell Pennzoil team.

13. Kasey Kahne (-71)
by: Lisa Janine Cloud

Despite having more wins than seven of the drivers ahead of him, Kasey Kahne sits at the bottom of the Chase. He followed a lackluster 12th at Chicagoland with a heartbreaking 37th at Loudon.   

Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick, both two-race winners, are poised within striking distance of the points lead should the Gibbs drivers and Jimmie Johnson have any trouble. Kahne not only needs a Tony Stewart-like run through the next eight races, but he needs Miles the Monster to lay the smackdown on the leaders.

Kahne’s record at Dover isn’t exactly enviable: one top five, five top 10s in 19 starts. And although he has those two wins, along with eight top fives and 11 top 10s thus far this season, he also has three DNFs and only 19 lead-lap finishes in 28 races. 

Can you say rollercoaster

There’s a possibility that Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis will be able to turn things around. A good top-two or top-three finish at the Monster Mile could push the pendulum of momentum the other direction. If Kahne can avoid getting wrecked again, he might be able to gain some ground in the points. 

But I wouldn’t count on it.

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