The Monster Energy Cup Series‘ Round of 12 commenced on Sunday with the Gander Outdoors 400 at Dover International Speedway. After a chaotic final ten laps, Chase Elliott is moving on to the Round of 8.
Qualifying was rained out, forcing the starting lineup to be set by owners points and every playoff driver to occupy the top 12 positions. As the new points leader after the Round of 16, Kyle Busch started on the pole alongside Kevin Harvick. Darrell Wallace Jr. started at the rear and his car chief was ejected after failing inspection multiple times.
During pace laps, Jimmie Johnson‘s right front wheel suffered a lower joint ball failure, forcing him to go to the garage before the green flag. It is one incident in a long list of misfortunes that have plagued the seven-time champion in 2018; he was eliminated from title contention after the Round of 16, while Dover has traditionally been one of his best tracks. He eventually returned to the race on lap ten.
Busch led the first 13 laps before Harvick pulled to the lead, while Brad Keselowski also passed Busch to take second. As Harvick’s lead continued to grow, those behind him fought in the top five.
Halfway into Stage #1 at around the 60-lap mark, William Byron pitted. The rest of the field did so starting ten laps, including the leaders. When Harvick pitted, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. inherited the lead until Harvick reclaimed it on lap 82. Johnson’s woes continued when he pitted outside his box.
Now back in first, Harvick continued his domination, which included putting playoff contender Alex Bowman a lap down. By the end of the stage, only 14 cars were on the lead lap. Harvick scored the stage win, ahead of Joey Logano, Busch, Clint Bowyer, Elliott, Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola, and Martin Truex Jr..
Logano beat Harvick off pit road to take the lead, while Elliott was penalised for an uncontrolled tire, forcing him to return to the pits where his crew adjusted his fender. Stage #2 began on lap 129 as Harvick had a strong restart to pull in front.
On lap 184, green flag stops began. Once the cycle ended, Harvick was once again on top as he scored yet another stage win. Behind him were Bowyer, Truex, Logano, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Elliott, and Keselowski.
Kyle Larson suffered a speeding penalty between stages. The final stage began on lap 247 with Harvick and Bowyer on the front row, though Almirola eventually moved up to second. After three laps, Stewart-Haas Racing drivers ran in the top four with Harvick, Almirola, Bowyer, and Kurt Busch. Behind them, the Team Penske trio of Keselowski, Logano, and Blaney tailed to form a Ford top seven. At the head of the field, the SHR cars battled with one another as Harvick continued to lead.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hit the wall on lap 314, though no caution came out. Five laps later, green flag stops opened. For Harvick and Kyle Busch, both drivers saw their races fall apart as Harvick had to return to fix a loose wheel and Busch was penalised for speeding. As such, Almirola and Bowyer took over first and second, respectively. Harvick fell to fourteenth and a lap down, but was granted another chance when a debris caution occurred on lap 338 as he was in the free pass position.
Keselowski won the race off pit road as Truex was penalised for being too fast in the pits. Johnson also received the same punishment.
For the restart with 52 to go, Keselowski and Almirola dueled for the opening lap before the latter cleared the former. Kurt Busch also got past Keselowski. Harvick continued his advance as he eventually cracked the top ten. On lap 381, Bowyer’s tire went down, forcing him to pit; ten laps later, with less than eight laps remaining in the race, he hit the wall to bring out the yellow flag.
Over the radio, Almirola commented in disbelief, “How many more times this year can this happen?”
Elliott, Keselowski, and Truex stayed out under yellow, with the first two leading the field to the restart with five to go. A strong restart by Elliott pushed him to the front as Keselowski began to fall. On the backstretch, Keselowski bumped with Almirola who brushed the wall exiting turn two, spinning the former around and causing him to hit Truex. Bowman could not avoid the #2 and slammed into him. The chaos resulted in a red flag to clean up the track.
“I didn’t really see what happened,” Bowman stated in an interview with NBCSN. “The 2 was sideways in front of me and I thought he was going to slide down the track quicker than I did. I should have gone low and he just took longer to overstep me, really. […] I thought he was gonna get chucked back to the inside pretty quick and he didn’t and I center-punched him. My mistake, really nowhere to go.”
In overtime, Elliott and Hamlin pulled away from the field for the top two positions. Hamlin could not catch Elliott as he stormed off to his second career Cup win and a guaranteed spot in the Round of 8. Behind the two were Logano, Erik Jones, Kurt Busch, and Harvick. The other playoff drivers finished as follows: Kyle Busch (eighth), Blaney (eleventh), Larson (twelfth), Almirola (thirteenth), Keselowski (fourteenth), Truex (fifteenth), Bowman (twenty-eighth), and Bowyer (thirty-fifth).
In addition to Elliott’s first oval Cup win, it is also the first non-restrictor plate oval track win and just the third-ever for the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, which has struggled in its first season of Cup racing. Austin Dillon scored the Camaro’s first oval win at the plate track Daytona International Speedway in February, followed by Elliott winning at the Watkins Glen International road course in August. For Hendrick Motorsports, it is the organisation’s first oval win since Kasey Kahne won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2017.
“We had a penalty there early and fell behind, and luckily we had a good-enough car and a good strategy to get back,” Elliott said in a post-race interview with NBCSN. “What a day. Just thanks to those guys and that man in the white shirt [HMS owner Rick Hendrick] because he has done so much for me. Wish my mom and dad were here. It’s been a hell of a day.”
Next week, the Round of 12 continues at Talladega Superspeedway with the 1000Bulbs.com 500. Keselowski is the defending winner. Due to Talladega’s unpredictability as a restrictor plate track, Elliott added, “You don’t appreciate it in those moments, but to come back [to Dover] with the day we had and move on to the next round, we won’t have to worry about Talladega next week.
“It’s a hell of a day.”