This weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to the ‘Monster Mile’, Dover International Speedway, for the twenty-ninth round of the 2017 championship and the third round of the all-important playoffs; the 2017 Apache Warrior 400 presented by Lucas Oil. This round is the third round out of three in the first elimination stage of the playoffs. After this race, the bottom four drivers in the top sixteen will be eliminated from championship contention.
Dover International Speedway is a one-mile oval, nicknamed ‘the Monster Mile’. The track has become infamous as one of the toughest tracks on the NASCAR calendar. The 24-degree banking on all four corners is compounded by a concrete racing surface that eats through the Goodyear tyre rubber that the drivers have beneath them.
The circuit hosted its’s first NASCAR Cup Series race back in 1969 on its original asphalt surface, with the concrete resurfacing coming for the 1995 season. Since then, the track has been a keen hunting ground for both Hendrick Motorsports and in particular, Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson has a combined eleven victories in the two NASCAR Cup series events held at Dover per season, with his Hendrick Motorsports team having taken a further eight wins with the likes of Jeff Gordon, Ricky Rudd, Geoff Bodine and Ken Schrader.
Last time out:
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series last raced at Dover International Speedway earlier this season in June for the AAA 400 Drive for Autism. Qualifying was all all-Toyota affair, with the manufacturer locking out the first two rows of the grid. Kyle Busch got pole position ahead of Martin Truex Jr, with Daniel Suarez taking the best qualification of his Cup career so far in third ahead of team-mate Matt Kenseth.
Truex Jr would usurp the polesitter in stage one to take the lead and the segment win. He’d double up with another win in segment two after re-passing the former race-leader Kyle Larson; who would go on to lead the most laps of the race. However, neither would wind up in victory lane.
A late-race caution would bunch the field up one last time for an Overtime finish. Larson would restart from first, but Jimmie Johnson would get a superior getaway in his #48 car to steal the lead with less than two miles of racing remaining. It wouldn’t go the full distance, however, with another wreck ending the race on the penultimate lap just after Johnson had crossed the overtime line.
The victory would be Johnson’s eleventh at the Speedway in his career and his third of the 2017 season. Since then, Johnson has not returned to victory lane and has suffered a mid-season dip in form. However, the #48 car’s results have improved since the playoffs began two weeks ago, so Johnson could end up in the running for a twelfth Dover victory this weekend.
Last week, Kyle Busch rebounded from a disappointing Chicagoland race to win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and guarantee himself a spot in the next round of the playoffs. Martin Truex Jr remains locked in after his victory and Chicagoland, with Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski also now locked in thanks to their points advantage over drivers further down the order.
With that said, there’s still a chance for any of the remaining twelve drivers to be eliminated from championship contention if they have a bad race this weekend. Realistically, however, the likes of Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick are unlikely to be eliminated barring a disaster. You can never be certain though, as only last year an eighteen-car wreck struck mid-race. Any incident like that could easily wipe out a couple of championship contenders.
The likely candidates for elimination include the four drivers currently below the cutline. Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne currently hold positions thirteen through sixteen, but Ricky Stenhouse Jr is tied with Dillon on points, so either could be eliminated. All of the above drivers have had poor races in the first two rounds of the playoffs; so it all now hinges on this weekend’s race at Dover.
Jamie McMurray is only nine points clear of the cutline, so he’ll be hoping for a strong race to stay in the playoffs. With the likes of Kurt Busch further back, who could spring a strong result in his #41 Stewart-Haas Racing car, it won’t be a stress-free event for Jamie in the #1.
If you go by the form-book, it’s hard to look past Jimmie Johnson in the #48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. With eleven victories to his name, he always seems to find a way to be in contention at Dover. However, with Johnson and the #48 team still looking as though they’re in the middle of the climb back up to the top, it’s a question of whether they will find their form in time to win on Sunday. Johnson’s team-mate Chase Elliott could also be in the mix, with three top-five finishes in all three of his Cup series starts at Dover to the #24 driver’s name.
Fellow Chevrolet driver Kyle Larson could also take a victory in Delaware this weekend. The #42 Chip Ganassi Racing driver led the most laps back in June and only lost to Johnson on the late-race restart. He similarly just missed out on a win in the 2016 May-race after an intense late-race battle with Matt Kenseth. This weekend could finally be Larson’s time to tame the Monster Mile. A win would also mean that the first round of the playoffs would be swept by the three main championship protagonists.
The other two protagonists could well be in contention once again this weekend. Martin Truex Jr is the reigning winner of the Dover playoff race after taking his #78 Furniture Row Racing Camry to the win a year ago. The #18 Joe Gibbs Racing Camry of Kyle Busch is also a former-winner at Dover, having won twice in 2008 and 2010 in the May-race.
Track action for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Dover will be televised by Premier Sports, NBCSN and CNBC this weekend. First practice and Coors-Light Pole Qualifying will take place on Friday. Two more practice sessions will follow on Saturday, with the 2017 Apache Warrior 400 presented by Lucas Oil rounding out the weekend on Sunday.