Chasing the Championship: Recapping the AAA 400 at Dover

Credit: NASCAR via Getty Images

Miles the Monster spent Sunday evening celebrating with his buddy Jimmie Johnson as the Hendrick Motorsports driver earned his eighth career victory at the one-mile track.

Matt Kenseth retained his points lead while Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, and Carl Edwards lost positions.

Kevin Harvick fought an ill-handling car most of the race but bounced back to a sixth place tying him with Jeff Gordon in the standings. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. brought home a strong runner-up finish after qualifying first and dominating the opening segment of the race.

Where did your driver finish the day? We’ve got your Chase driver recaps below:

1. Matt Kenseth (2149 points)
by: Stephanie Stuart

Most people would consider finishing seventh a good day. Those people aren't in the Sprint Cup Championship points lead. They also weren't looking to win their third race in a row this weekend at Dover.

Those people aren't Matt Kenseth.

Coming into Dover, Matt felt confident about his chances. Jason Ratcliff and the crew gave him a good car, and they ran in the top 10 all day, but when push came to shove, a late race caution forced Ratcliff to make a pit road strategy call for track position. He called for two right-side tires, instead of the four they had been going with all day. The car didn't respond well, and Matt fell back on the final restart, losing positions to Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick before settling for seventh place.

He remains the Sprint Cup points leader, but Jimmie Johnson was able to cut the lead to only eight points with his victory.

"We struggled a little bit," Matt said after the race. "We qualified really good, had a really good Friday, had pretty good pit stops today and had our track position. But once we got on two tires there and lost our track position at the very end I knew we were going to drop back. So, it's disappointing to run in the top three or four all day and then to finish seventh, you know that was the worst position I think we had all day... overall, I think we got a decent finish out of a car that we just didn't really have what we needed to race with the 48 and those guys."

Can Matt hold onto the Sprint Cup Championship lead as Johnson gains momentum? The No. 20 team will head into Kansas this weekend prepared to fight for the title, and it's shaping up to be a good battle.

Credit: Justin Heiman/Getty Images

2. Jimmie Johnson (-8)
by: Katy Lindamood

“It's really cool.  I'm not sure I've ever done what Richard Petty hasn't. To get this eighth win here is very, very special. Truthfully it was the first thought that went through my mind when I crossed the finish line.”

That’s what Jimmie Johnson told reporters Sunday after his win at The Monster Mile. A win that put him at the top of the record books for most victories at the Dover, ahead of Petty and Bobby Allison. A win that moved him to second in the standings just eight points behind Kenseth.

Johnson’s day started from the eighth position, but it didn’t take long for Team 48 to make their way into the top five. Making a small air pressure adjustment on the first round of stops, Johnson was able to move into second position behind his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. before the car hit pit lane for a second time. Earnhardt Jr.'s failure to make the commitment line allowed Johnson to take the lead once the cycle of stops had been completed.

From that point on it was Johnson’s race to win, and he did so in dominant fashion. En route to his fifth win of the season Johnson led 243 of the 400 laps and earned the maximum points possible.

Does this win mean Johnson will end the season as a six-time Champion? If history has anything to say the answer is yes. Why? Because the last two times Johnson won the Dover Chase race he went on to win the title.

Of course Crew Chief Chad Knaus knows it’s going to be a battle with Kenseth until the end.

“Matt's good. He is. He's good. There's no doubt about it," said Knaus regarding the points leader. "I really enjoy racing with Matt. He's a good driver. He's a clean driver. He understands where he's at on the racetrack. At different points today we were faster than him, he understood. He really gets it. He gets it more than most of the drivers out there. He knows when to get the hell out of the way. He knows when he has the best car. He needs to take advantage of that. He knows what to do."

3. Kyle Busch (-12)
By: Rebecca Kivak

In a strong show of his team’s championship potential, Kyle Busch battled a loose racecar to claim his third straight top-five finish in the Chase. Busch placed fifth in Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover, finishing two spots ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth and gaining two points on Kenseth in the championship standings.

After starting 14th at the Monster Mile, Busch immediately went to work passing cars. He worked his way up to seventh by Lap 6. After the race’s first caution on Lap 37, Busch took two tires and won the race off pit road. The driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota led once for 30 laps until he lost the lead to Ryan Newman on Lap 71.

Fighting a “wrecking loose” car, Busch ran primarily between the fifth and seventh positions for the remainder of the race. When the final caution came out on Lap 370, Busch took four tires and restarted fifth. After falling one spot to sixth, he got the position back from Kenseth. Busch finished fifth when the checkered flag flew.

Finishing two spots ahead of Kenseth was a race in of itself, as Busch made up two points between himself and his teammate in the championship standings. But he dropped one position to third in the rankings after Jimmie Johnson’s race win.

Busch and his team showed they have the consistency needed to win the championship.

“We were about a fifth- to seventh-place car much of the day and we ended up fifth. The Interstate Batteries Camry got what it could out of it. Certainly, I wish we definitely could’ve gotten more,” Busch said after the race. “It’s frustrating to be fifth, but yet you look at the grand scheme of things and it’s three straight top-fives to start the Chase so not bad.”

Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images

4. Kevin Harvick (-39)
by Katy Lindamood

Kevin Harvick flew under the radar Sunday at Dover. Fighting a loose car all day, the driver of the Budweiser Chevy started his day in the 12th position and fell back slightly in the opening laps of the AAA 400.

Most of the day was spent between the 11th and 16th positions, unable to gain enough grip to move into the top 10. It wasn’t until the final fourth of the race that the team was able to move forward and come home with a solid sixth place finish.

"This was a tough one for us. We struggled most of the weekend to find the right balance on the Budweiser Chevrolet and battled handling issues during the race. The team did a great job bouncing back today and it resulted in the solid finish we needed," said Harvick, who leaves Dover fourth in the standings tied with Jeff Gordon.

5. Jeff Gordon (-39)
by: Stephanie Stuart

Jeff Gordon came into Dover needing a strong finish to gain ground in the points standings. An unusually clean race gave the advantage to Gordon, allowing him to combine a fast race car with pit strategy to finish fourth at the Monster Mile. He is now technically tied for fourth in the standings, but is ranked fifth.

Coming from the 16th starting spot, Gordon had his work cut out for him. He was able to pick up two spots in the beginning laps of the race, and ran as high as 11th before the first caution of the race. Restarting 12th, Gordon continued to pick up spots, reaching seventh place by lap 100. He would ultimately lead three  laps, and run in the top ten the rest of the afternoon, before driving the 24 car to a well-deserved fourth place finish.

Gordon felt he could have made up a little more ground on the leaders, had there not been a late race caution, that restarted the field with only 37 laps to go. "We just did not have a short run car," he said in his post race interview with ESPN. "We took two to get track position which won the race but it just didn't work for our car." At the time, Gordon said he felt two tires was the right call for the late-race caution.

"We had moments where I felt like we had the best car, and there were moments I felt like we were one of the worst cars," he said in the post race press-conference. "I felt like we were in the perfect position fuel mileage wise, tires, speed of the car, we were just sitting there trying to get to the end."

Always driving for his fifth Sprint Cup Championship, Gordon is ready to get to Kansas. "I'm very excited and motivated by how well this team has stepped up since the Chase has come around," he said.

He'll venture into the Midwest next weekend having moved up nine spots in the points standings since the beginning of the Chase. Gordon is definitely one to watch as we hit the halfway point in the hunt for the title.

6. Greg Biffle (-41)
by: Carol D’Agostino

Greg Biffle undoubtedly had Dover International Speedway circled on his calendar. Traditionally a good track for Biffle, this weekend didn’t turn out as well as expected. Once you factor in his indignant response to a media question earlier in the week about the championship being a three-man race, it was a downright disappointing race day. He finished in ninth place, dropping one spot in the championship standings.

“The Chase, from what I understand, is made up of 10 races and to be two races into the Chase and say it’s a three-man race already, to me, seems silly as to why somebody would want to put themselves in that position and say it’s a three-man race,” Biffle said.  

Biffle started the race in 19th place, and was able to work his way to 10th place by Lap 120. With only four cautions, the team had little time to work on getting the car better. By Lap 320 Biffle was able to gain two more spots to seventh place, but that was the best he could do.  He finished the race as the top Roush Fenway Racing team as Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. finished 17th and Carl Edwards finished 35th after falling out of the race late with a wheel issue.

Biffle will have the chance to make up some ground in the standings at the fourth Chase race at Kansas Speedway where he has an average finish of 8.4 over the past five years at this race.   

7. Ryan Newman (-48)
By: Beth Bence Reinke

After rolling off third, the Rocket Man ran in the top five until the first caution. He lost positions on pit road when he took four tires when some of the leaders went with two, but regained spots quickly within a few laps of the restart. He stayed up front for the first half of the race, leading twice for six laps, picking up a valuable bonus point.

The No. 39 State Water Heaters Chevy got tight and despite multiple adjustments – track bar, air pressure, wedge – the handling was an issue for much of the event. In what turned out to be an accident-free race, Newman dropped back and ran around 10th place for the last 100 laps. He surged forward a couple positions after the final restart and finished eighth, bringing his number of top-10 finishes to 12 in 23 career Sprint Cup starts at the Dover.

“All in all, it wasn't a bad day for the State Water Heaters Chevrolet,” Newman said. “We got another top-10 finish, which means everyone can go to Outback Steakhouse and get a free Bloomin' Onion, and we paid 10 mortgages with Quicken Loans' "Bring it Home" promotion.”

Free onions for fans, 10 homeowners getting their mortgage paid this month and Newman jumped two spots in the championship points standings – from ninth to seventh. “It wasn’t a bad day” indeed.

8. Clint Bowyer (-51)
by: Rebecca Kivak

Clint Bowyer needed a solid day at Dover to keep his championship hopes alive, and he got it. A 10th-place finish buoyed Bowyer two spots in the Chase standings to eighth. A fuel-only pit stop early on in Sunday’s AAA 400 helped Bowyer gain vital track position after a mid-pack starting spot.

The driver of the No. 15 Raspberry 5-Hour ENERGY Toyota rolled off the grid 23rd at the Monster Mile. Bowyer had driven up to 16th when the first caution came out on Lap 37. Bowyer pitted and took fuel only, gaining 10 spots in the race off pit road.

The gamble paid off for the No. 15 team. Bowyer restarted sixth and spent the majority of the first 300 laps in the top seven. Bowyer liked the handling on the No. 15 Toyota so much that the team didn’t make any adjustments during the first half of the race.

On Lap 314, Bowyer led for one lap, gaining one precious point toward his title efforts before making a green-flag pit stop. After getting four tires and a chassis adjustment, he dropped back to 10th. Bowyer and his team planned to play the fuel mileage game and not pit again before the race’s end, but their strategy was disrupted when the final caution came out on Lap 370. Bowyer crossed the finish line in 10th.

Despite gaining two spots in the standings, Bowyer lost three points, sitting 51 markers behind leader Matt Kenseth. He was proud of the No. 15 team's effort.

“We’ve had a rough start to the Chase, but we worked hard and put ourselves in a good position to go for the win today,” Bowyer said at Dover. “Unfortunately, that caution there at the end ruined our plan, but we were good enough and smart enough to get a win today. That is a tough one to swallow, but I’m ready to go to Kansas next week. It’s my home track and I’m looking forward to racing in front of my home crowd.”

9. Kurt Busch (-55)
by: Katy Lindamood

Dover has never been one of Kurt Busch’s strongest tracks. With 13 finishes outside the top 15 before Sunday’s AAA 400, Busch knew he had an uphill battle ahead of him. Unfortunately, lady luck wasn’t in his corner.

After qualifying ninth Busch fell outside to top 10 early, moving back to 16th by lap 20. Things didn’t get much better from that point on. Following the first stop Busch had dropped all the way back into the 23rd position though he was able to move up to the 16th spot as the race progressed.

On Lap 159 the No. 78 was forced to pit road when Busch reported a possible loose wheel. The unscheduled stop cost the team valuable track position and put them two laps down to the leader where they would remain.

Busch finished the day in 21st position and dropped two positions in the standings to ninth.

Credit: Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR Via Getty Images
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-57)
by: Rebecca Kivak

After entering Dover with the attitude of taking chances to win, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team delivered. Overcoming pit road issues and gambling on tire strategy, Earnhardt Jr. contended for the win with one of the best cars at the Monster Mile. The No. 88 Guard team put together a solid race weekend that saw Earnhardt Jr. start from the pole and lead 80 laps before ultimately finishing second to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.

Earnhardt Jr. was fast out of the gate at Dover, setting a new track record with his pole-winning lap. His second pole of the year marked the first time since 2002 that the driver of the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet had won multiple poles in a season.

After the green flag dropped in Sunday’s AAA 400, Earnhardt Jr. led the first 26 laps. After the first caution on Lap 37, Earnhardt Jr. took four tires, a risky move as the rest of the leaders took two. He lost the race lead and dropped four spots to fifth. But it quickly became evident the No. 88 was fast and better on long runs. Earnhardt Jr. retook the lead on Lap 76.

On Lap 117, Earnhardt was still leading when he made a costly mistake: his missed the pit entrance on his scheduled green-flag stop. Forced to come back around, Earnhardt Jr. lost the 3.7-second lead he had built over second place and fell nine seconds behind the race leader to eighth place.

But the No. 88 had a good car and could afford to be patient. During the second half of the race, Earnhardt Jr. worked his way up to second and engaged Johnson in a thrilling battle for the lead, which Earnhardt reclaimed when Johnson pitted on Lap 310. But another issue would hurt Earnhardt Jr. on pit road. On Lap 313, Earnhardt Jr. was trapped behind Mark Martin when he came in to pit. The No. 88 lost time and fell back to fourth.

The last caution of the day on Lap 370 gave the No. 88 their final chance to try for the win. When the leaders pitted, Earnhardt Jr. was the first car to take four tires. As the pole winner, Earnhardt Jr. had the prime position for his pit box at the end of pit road, so he didn’t lose any positions even with a four-tire stop. Earnhardt Jr. restarted fourth and jumped to second. With fewer than 30 laps to go, Earnhardt Jr. tried to catch Johnson but was unable to get to his teammate. The driver of the No. 88 finished a hard-fought second place.

Earnhardt Jr. led eight times for 80 laps, which is one-third of the 245 laps he’s lead this whole season. The finish propelled Earnhardt one place in the point standings to 10th, 57 points behind leader Matt Kenseth.

After a rough start to the Chase at Chicagoland, Earnhardt Jr. is pleased with his team’s progress.

“I feel like in the last couple of weeks, we’ve been able to really show what our team’s capable of,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We’ve been really quick on the sheet every day, fast in practice. The changes we’re making, everything seems to be working right, going in the direction you want. I feel like when we get it right, we can compete and we can win. We came really close today. I don’t feel like today was a highlight for us. I think this is how it’s supposed to be every week.”

11. Carl Edwards (-65)
by: Lacy Keyser

Starting fourth, Edwards was hoping to gain track position early on and make a move in the Chase standings. But it wasn't “Concrete Carl’s” day. His car wasn't to his liking, and he spent most of the day 15th or worse.

As the race wound down, Edwards' day got worse. On Lap 377, he took the No. 99 car to the garage with rear end damage and finished a disappointing 35th, which dropped him from fourth to 11th in the standings. 

"We struggled all day,” Edwards said. “Our plan was to get off-sequence at the end and I thought we might have a shot at making a top-three or four out of it, but something broke in the left-rear. I don’t know what it was, but I don’t think it was any fault of my guys. They did a great job. Jimmy did a great job working hard on it all day, but we just weren't fast. We needed to hang on for a solid finish and something broke, so that’s tough.”

12. Joey Logano (-66)
by: Jessica Tow

Contrary to 2009, it appears that Joey Logano and Miles and the Monster have become civil with one another during Sprint Cup races. Logano started Sunday's AAA 400 from the 11th position and ran in the top 10 throughout the afternoon.

With tough restarts, intense battles for track position, and a new chassis that continually required minor adjustments, Logano fought hard to earn a solid third plae. This finish marks Logano's ninth top-10 finish this season.

Following the race on Sunday, Logano spoke to the media about his performance at Dover.

"Yesterday we ended practice and our car wasn’t very good. We didn’t have much speed in it and Todd Gordon and the whole Shell-Pennzoil team did a good job of making it better overnight. They threw everything at this car last night – three springs, bars, shocks, you name it – we changed just about everything on this race car and it was definitely better to start the race. We had to make some adjustments as we got going and as the race went along we turned into a top-five car, I think, and just had to get that track position. On the last restart, starting on the outside was a good lane to have and having four tires was also the right call that Todd made. I was able to capitalize on the restart, get ourselves up to third, but the problem was it just took us too long to get up to speed. Fifteen laps into the run the car took off and the last six or seven laps we were the fastest car on the track, but we were a little too little, too late. I could barely see the leaders and the only shot I had at beating them was if they ran into each other or slipped up a lot and I was able to make something up, but I just couldn’t get there in time. Maybe if the race was another 40 laps I may have gotten there.”

After gaining a mere three points with his top five performance at Dover, Logano remains 12th in the championship standings. He sits 66 points behind points leader Matt Kenseth.

13. Kasey Kahne (-78)
by: Lisa Janine Cloud

While the rest of Hendrick Motorsports dominated the race at Dover and improved their respective positions in the points, Kasey Kahne had an okay day until something happened to the No. 5 car.

What happened? For the second week in a row, Kahne doesn't know.

“We don’t know yet. Something was wrong and we lost a lot of power. Didn’t seem like the engine, maybe it was something else like tail pipes or something. We are not real sure."

Unlike last week, though, pit strategy kept Kahne from finishing in the back of the field.

"We just salvaged a good finish and we didn't pit there and got a top-15. So that was good for what we had and what we were dealt with.”

Unfortunately for Kahne and the No. 5 team, only he and Kurt Busch finished outside of the top ten. Kahne sits 78 points behind the leader. With only seven races to go in the Chase, his chances of winning the championship are all but over. At this point, all Kahne and crew have nothing to lose, so it would not be surprising to see them do whatever it takes to get some trophies.

They'll need to figure out what's happening to them before they can even do that much, though. 

Check back with Skirts and Scuffs on Friday for our Kansas preview.
Chasing the Championship: Recapping the AAA 400 at Dover Chasing the Championship: Recapping the AAA 400 at Dover Reviewed by Admin on Tuesday, October 01, 2013 Rating: 5