The Chase for the Sprint Cup is getting hot for the Chasers as the season dwindles to just 384 potential points.
NASCAR’s eighth race of the Chase, the AAA 400, takes place on “The Monster Mile” at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Delaware this Sunday. Fans who don’t have a ticket for one of the 140,000 seats can view the fast intensity at 1 p.m. on ESPN.
Not all driving styles are suited to the 1.0-mile concrete oval with 24 degree banking, but current leader Jimmie Johnson with seven previous wins seems to be right at home in the bowl-like racetrack. Always a threat to cross the finish line first, Johnson will be even more scrutinized by his opponents as he seeks a six championship.
Chase contenders will be struggling to secure more points than Johnson if they are to be in contention at the finale in Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Denny Hamlin brings team momentum of five wins this season as he attempts to disrupt Johnson’s plans for another title.
Hamlin is in third place coming off a win in New Hampshire just seven points behind leader Johnson. Taking that slim point differential all the way to Homestead would give Hamlin or any of the Chase contenders a good chance at the Sprint trophy.
But Hamlin is not looking that far ahead.
“As far as making it a two-horse race, I think it's too early to do that,” Hamlin said. “I think that there's still a lot of mistakes that can be made on both sides that could allow a lot of guys to perform. The 2 car is obviously very strong right now, so you're not going to count him out. And really, there's no one you can eliminate until five races to go.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in seventh place 26 points back from leader Jimmie Johnson. With only 48 points per race possible he is certainly not out of contention, but his team and others behind him know that it’s essential to get consistent high finishes in the Chase.
“There's eight chances to win some races, eight chances to have some things to celebrate, have some good things happen to you,” Earnhardt said.
Hamlin shared his thoughts about the dynamics of the NASCAR playoffs and his team’s chances.
“If you're over a race out with five to go, and you've got to leapfrog probably three or four guys, your chances are very, very slim," Hamlin said. “These guys are too good. You can't make mistakes. The only thing that will keep us from being in contention once we get to Homestead is our early mistakes, or mechanical failures. If we don't have those, I think our performance is good enough to carry us to championship contention once we get to Homestead.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. also had comments about team effort and winning.
“You got to go in there with a good attitude,” Earnhardt said. “You got to have the body language and everything where your confidence is high so your team around you feels the same way, and everybody works hard. You got to keep trying.
“It comes down to winning races and finishing well, having a good high average finish, getting a couple wins snuck in there somewhere on top of that.”
Brad Keselowski has had a stellar season with four wins and sits in second place just one point behind Johnson. Keselowski shared thoughts about this next race and beyond.
“There is no question that Dover is probably our weakest track in the Chase,” Keselowski said. “We’ve had some good, not great, cars there in the past. I know (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe) has really targeted Dover for the last several weeks, really putting a lot of emphasis on it. I’m confident we can go up there and keep ourselves in the championship conversation.
“At Loudon we took a fifth to 10th-place car and finished sixth with it. That’s what championship teams do.”
The top-five contenders in the Chase—Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, and Kasey Kahne—are all within 15 points of one another.
Tony Stewart may not be off to as great as start as he had last year when he won five of the 10 Chase races to snatch the championship from Carl Edwards, but he is in fourth place and only 10 points back from the leader. Stewart always describes driving the tracks well.
“Dover is a track that is kind of a two-phase deal,” Stewart said. “It’s easy to get your car too tight in the center (of the corner) trying to get it to drive up off the corner nice, and it seems like if you get it to rotate through the corner, then it’s way loose off. Those are the two things that you really battle there. It’s the sacrifice of where do you want to be a little bit off to accomplish having a balanced car.”
Kasey Kahne has had a good first year with Hendrick Motorsports and shard his thoughts from his fifth place position just 15 points away from the top.
“I’ve always liked going to Dover,” Kahne said. “It’s a tough track, and you carry a lot of speed into the corners. We did really well here last fall and worked hard for a top-10 in the spring. The team has a lot of consistency right now, and we all want to keep that up.”
Among the 12 Chase contenders, no driver is yet eliminated, but the next few races are crucial to staying among those with a shot at the big prize.
For more race details go to www.doverspeedway.com
FYI WIRZ is the select presentation of topics by Dwight Drum at Racetake.com. Unless otherwise noted, information and all quotes were obtained from personal interviews or official release materials provided by sanction and team representatives.