In a week where nothing less than a win would do to keep his championship hopes alive, Kevin Harvick produced his most dominant performance of the year to win the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway.
After running out of fuel late on last week at New Hampshire, Harvick’s #4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet was in command from first flag to last at Dover, having dropped so far into the Chase for the Sprint Cup‘s elimination zone that only a race victory would advance him to the Contender round. The #4 team have produced dominant races many times this year, but having last won way back at Phoenix in March, doubts had been cast over his ability to close out the deal; especially after last week’s heartbreak.
From about lap 20 onwards, there was no doubt today would be Harvick’s day again.
His pace was in the mind-bending category all day, regularly pulling 5-10 car lengths on the field within one lap of any given restart, and reclaiming his lead within five laps of a mid-race caution having slipped to fourth during a round of pitstops. The ease his car passed, moved around, stayed stuck to the track, and blasted around the one-mile high banks was awe-inspiring, with what was on the line only adding to the magnitude of such an epic drive. This was a statement of intent from the 2014 champion like no other – lit up in enormous neon letters.
But he wasn’t the only Chase story out there. In fact, in spite of not a huge amount of on-track action, this race exactly what this Chase system exists for; to bring playoff-style tension and ‘Game 7 Moments’ to the final 10 races. And this race had plenty of those, starting with the fall from grace of 6-time champion and 10-time race winner at Dover, Jimmie Johnson. His plunge out of the 2015 Chase was a bitter pill to swallow after he suffered broken seals in the transmission, losing 37 laps in the garage area making repairs – and despite returning to the track and making some more positions up, his 41st place finish meant he waves goodbye to his chances of a record-tying seventh title for this year.
Several other fascinating battles played out, and in the closing laps the final transfer spot into round 2 became a straight fight between fan favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jamie McMurray. Having had mediocre races for most of the day, both found themselves in the top-5 with 30 laps to go, with Jr in the simple scenario of having to beat McMurray on-track in order to tie him on points – then advance on the tiebreak by dint of having a better finish in this round than McMurray, with that result coming in this very race. He pulled a fantastic move through Turn 3 round the outside of both Matt Kenseth and McMurray to move to 4th, and despite McMurray hounding him the rest of the way, Jr sealed his passage into the Contender round – just.
Others also just sneaking in included 2nd place finisher Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon, whilst Martin Truex Jr. had to fight back from a technical infraction which put him to the rear of the starting grid to finish 11th and secure his place in the next round. Alongside McMurray and Johnson, Clint Bowyer (15th) and Paul Menard (25th) also slid through the Chase trapdoor. Conversely, several non-Chasers enjoyed great days, looking to build momentum for 2016, including Aric Almirola (5th), Kasey Kahne (6th), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (8th) and Kyle Larson (9th). Larson ran large parts of the final 100 laps in 2nd and looked a potential threat to spoil the Chase party, but slipped back having taken two tires on a late caution.
This was the kind of Chase race that gives plenty of ammunition to both sides of the Chase debate – whether you think it’s contrived and unfair, or gut-wrenching drama, you’ll have plenty of evidence for your case out of this one. Regardless, the Class of 2015 have played their first hand, and four depart the casino empty-handed. The rest advance, but for most of them, the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup is a little game that is causing NASCAR’s elite to perspire – and we’re only one round in.