NASCAR at Dover 2016: Winners, Losers from the Citizen Soldier 400
The Monster Mile reared its ugly head in the Citizen Soldier 400. It was an elimination race for the Chase for the Sprint Cup leaving behind Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray, Tony Stewart and Chris Buescher.
"When you go to an elimination race, four people leave the party," NBCSN’s Kyle Petty said during the broadcast. "It’s how they leave. The Ganassi organization was eliminated by errors. It’s a three-race round. They couldn’t make it happen. It wasn’t today. Go back to Chicago, New Hampshire. It’s cumulative."
And Martin Truex Jr. was the cumulatively dominant driver of the round. He won two races and could have won a third.
"Golly, man, I gotta pinch myself," Truex told NBCSN. "We’re ready for Charlotte."
But not us, Martin, first we need to recap this race. Read on for this week’s winners and losers from Dover.
Loser: The 7th Man
Barely 40 laps into the race, Kyle Larson’s battery lost power, and he fell a lap down while his pit crew scurried around the No. 42 Chevy.
This wasn’t cause for concern. Yes, it put the No. 42 team in a bind; it was only five points to the good and needed to maintain that spot in order to advance to the Round of 12.
What killed Larson’s afternoon was a seventh man hopping over the fence to help with the battery issue. This is like 12 men on the field to give your opponent a crucial first down.
This lapse in awareness forced Larson to pass through pit road at 35 miles per hour. NBCSN's Steve Letarte said during the broadcast:
That is compounding errors, compounding mistakes. The battery was the biggest issue, but then when the No. 42 came to pit road, they had too many guys over pit wall. One lap was recoverable.
When he serves his penalty and comes down pit road, he is going to lose at least a second lap, maybe a third. It is going to be a steep hill to try and climb back from this.
And that was it. Being down the one lap probably ended his chances, but three laps buried it completely, this at a track where he finished second back in May.
Winner: A 'Solid Day'
Amid the unlikely advancement of Austin Dillon to the Round of 12, Chase Elliott was grinding his way up to a third-place finish in those salacious and salivating Mountain Dew colors.
Everything Elliott does belies his age, and he’s on to the next round.
“We were just trying to do our jobs and not overcomplicate it,” the 20-year-old told NBCSN. “Luckily, for us, we just had a solid day, and that’s what we needed to do.”
Third place is more than a solid day.
“I think he undersells himself,” NBCSN’s Kyle Petty said. “I think he undersold himself and that team today. If he had caught a caution late in that race, he would have been in contention.”
“He can’t buy beer or rent a car, that doesn’t mean anything to advance to the Round of Eight,” said NBCSN’s Dale Jarrett. “They have found speed and done an outstanding job. He has the ability and the knowhow to get it done. Possibly that first win is coming up.”
We’ve seen the mistakes being made by the No. 48 team. It appears the No. 24 is the high point for Hendrick Motorsports based on how clean he races and how few mistakes he makes.
Nothing is a lock in this Chase format, but he’s a favorite to advance to the Round of Eight.
Loser: A Blown Engine
Less than 50 laps into the race, Larson bowed out.
All owner Chip Ganassi could say was, “At least I’ve got Jamie McMurray three points to the good.”
Fast forward to Lap 194 and McMurray’s engine blew up and left a trail of smoke behind him that could block out the sun. Just like that the Monster Mile chewed up and spat out the Ganassi cars.
“Early [in] the race I had a vibration and had an issue with the drive shaft,” McMurray told NBCSN during the broadcast. “Then the vibration went away, but it started again and it finally broke.”
McMurray had what you might call a nice, solid season. He rarely contended for a win, but he was undeniably a top-16 car all season.
“We’ve had good cars the last two months,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the No. 42 and the No. 1 had problems. It is what it is, but that’s why you race. It stinks that it’s over this way, but we get to race next week.”
Therein lies the truly unique format of NASCAR’s playoffs; teams that fail to make the playoffs or get eliminated in its early rounds still get to race. They still get to compete, and McMurray’s attitude reflects the silver lining of what was a cloudy day in Dover.
Winner: Ganassi's Christmas Present
Austin Dillon started the day five points back of the cutline. What he needed to do was pass Larson’s No. 42 car.
Then Larson’s battery failed followed by too many over the wall; Dillon climbed.
Then McMurray blew an engine, thus gift-wrapping a Round-of-12 berth for Dillon, Richard Childress Racing and the No. 3 team.
Larson told NBCSN after the race: “That’s a nice Christmas present to Austin there from both Ganassi cars.”
Indeed, but with the way Dillon’s car performed, there may have been no way Larson could have held off the No 3.
“Yeah, that’s all I want,” Dillon said after the race. “Another chance!”
That’s what his driving—both cautious and opportunistic—afforded.
“The effort,” Dillon told NBCSN. “We’re on to the next round. I was just glad. I don’t care how much it was. Eleven points, one point, two points. Now it’s time to knock some of them out. We’re underdogs. Let’s do it.”
Dillon went on to say that this was a start. He had a very good car that he drove fast enough to get the points and to keep the body clean.
“This is a driver exceeding the race car,” said NBCSN’s Dale Jarrett. “Now he goes to a couple of one-and-a-half mile racetracks that are his bread and butter. He’s very capable of racing [well] and there’s nobody better at getting more out of a car without wrecking it.”
Dillon will most certainly be the underdog he says he is—the Chris Buescher of the Round of 12—but, as he said, it’s another chance.
Loser: Pit-Road Woes
"It's black & white. If you're more than one box away and a crew guy is touching the concrete, that's a penalty,” Steve Letarte said during the NBCSN broadcast.
He was referring to the No. 48 pit crew, which had its jackman over the wall too soon. NASCAR forced Jimmie Johnson to serve a drive-through penalty as it dropped him from first place to 16th.
When did this happen before?
Oh, yes, at Chicagoland Johnson sped on pit road from P1 and never regained that track position.
The 10th pit-road infraction for the team didn’t hurt his capacity to advance in the Chase, but it’s these kinds of mistakes that indicate that this team is not capable of winning a championship in this format.
“We’ve got a two-lap cushion on the transfer,” Chad Knaus said over the radio trying to reassure his driver. Johnson would finish seventh, a lap down, but it could’ve been so much better.
But it’s like what NBCSN’s Ricky Allen said, “A championship-caliber team can’t continue to make mistakes and think it can win a championship.”
Johnson drove on valiantly to have a decent, lap-down finish, but mistakes of this nature carry with it consequences on an order of magnitude far greater than in the regular season.
So far, the No. 48 team hasn’t proven its ability to seize the lead and carry it all the way to the front mistake free. Until it can prove it can, the better pit-road team will continue to beat them as they continue to beat themselves.
Winner: The Statement
NBCSN’s Krista Voda invited Truex up on to the set and recalled for the driver how winning at Charlotte was a relief. Winning the Southern 500 was a dream. And winning at Dover was a statement.
In fact, Truex could have, nay, should have, won all three races to open the Chase.
“We’re not messing around,” Truex told NBCSN. “What else can you say? We’re here to get it done.”
It, of course, is the Sprint Cup championship, and if this first round was any indicator for how well he’ll perform, he’ll be the favorite to win it should he reach the Championship Four for the second straight year.
“I can remember going [to Dover] and being really fast and watching Jimmie Johnson win 10 of them and thinking that’s got to be amazing winning all those races,” he added.
Truex ties Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch with four wins on the year, and you could say with absolute certainty that Truex has had the best car from Race 1 to Race 29.
Now he heads to Charlotte where the last time the circuit was there for the Coca-Cola 600, Truex “only” led 392 of the 400 laps.
When they bring that No. 78 chassis to that track, you better believe he’ll be the favorite, getting a much-needed win out of the way beneath that looming Talladega shadow in Race 3 of the Round of 12.