NASCAR 2014 at Dover II: Winners and Losers from the AAA 400

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistSeptember 28, 2014

NASCAR 2014 at Dover II: Winners and Losers from the AAA 400

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Dover brought a monstrous finish to the Challenger Round of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. The word of the day was "pressure," pressure strong enough to crush carbon into diamonds, and it was Jeff Gordon who powered through for his fourth win of the year.

    This was the third and final race of the first round of the Chase, and the drivers on the fringe of the 12-driver cutoff had their hands forced. Every pit stop was charged with suspense, with drivers' chances to advance hinging on every second, every tightened lug nut, every chassis adjustment. Challengers became contenders.

    As the points shuffled around, it felt as if you needed a degree in advanced mathematics to keep pace with who was in and who was out.

    Now the points get reset to 3,000 for 12 advancing drivers as this field heads to Kansas for the Contender Round. But first, a look at the winners and losers from Dover’s Monster Mile.

Winner: Jeff Gordon and the Fountain of Youth

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Just one week ago, Jeff Gordon was on the verge of a strong finish at Loudon. Then he blew a tire and finished 26th. That put him in the precarious spot of possibly missing the next round of the Chase. 

    For someone who led so much of this year's standings, such a loss would be unthinkable. With a little luck, the No. 24 led the final third of the AAA 400 at the Monster Mile to win his fourth race of the year over Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson.

    Gordon said during the ESPN broadcast:

    This is huge. We came in here with extra pressure because we weren’t guaranteed to be in had we finished where we finished at New Hampshire last week. All we did was focus on executing as a team and winning this race. It wasn’t about the points and squeezing in to get by. I don’t know how you make a bigger statement than what this team did right there.

    As Gordon said, he and his team needed to make a statement that they have a team and car capable of winning a fifth championship, not just trickling in to every round and ultimately ceding to three or four true contenders. 

    Gordon is one of those strong cars that can win the Chase, and he just proved it at Dover. Expect Gordon to take this momentum and parlay it into Kansas, where he won earlier this year.

Loser: Kevin Harvick's Inner Valve Stem

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    Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    Kevin Harvick’s 252nd lap saw his left tire go flat, thus grinding his splitter into dust. Harvick was without question the car to beat. He led for 223 laps on the day and saw it all go to waste after another bout of bad luck.

    During a pit stop, a lug nut came loose and decapitated the inner valve stem. He was off the pace and out of contention. This was after his left front shock broke.

    “It’s unbelievable,” Harvick told ESPN after the race. “We can beat them on three shocks, but we can’t beat them on three tires.”

    Harvick has had many races this season in which he's led the most laps only to see a poor pit stop or a wreck ruin his day.

    He said on ESPN, "That knocked the inner valve stem off with a lug nut. It got in between the wheel and the brake rotor and knocked the valve stem out. Crazy luck. Handing out early Christmas presents for races that we should be winning."

    Like Harvick said, if luck is on his side and he doesn’t trip on his own feet, he may be the car to beat in this entire run the Chase.

Winner: Kasey Kahne's Wild Day at Dover

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    Paul J. Bergstrom/Associated Press

    Originally, Kasey Kahne was a loser, and the first sentence to the slide read: "Kasey Kahne was the last Hendrick Motorsports driver to qualify for the Chase, and now he's the first to exit."

    Then he turned things around. Miraculously.

    Early in the race, Kahne needed to pit under green when his left rear tire loosened. As a result, he fell two laps down and was in desperate need of a long green run.

    He didn’t get it. The yellow flag came out shortly after he pitted a second time, putting him two laps down. He'd eventually be four laps down, but his car kept picking off drivers. It was a grave that took the remainder of the race to dig out of.

    Kahne started the day 11th in the Chase standings, just one spot inside the final cutoff spot for advancement to the Contender round. 

    "That car, he was in the top five all day," car owner Rick Hendrick said during the ESPN broadcast. "He could run up there. The car was that good. We just had a problem to come in and change tires and get out of sequence. He drove his butt off to get back there."

    Kahne said the following on ESPN:

    I had a good car; luckily the team prepared a great car. Fortunate to have that and drive my way back and barely advance. I had to push hard. I’m glad NASCAR let it go and let us race for it. It was pretty interesting. I’m glad we made it. We had to fight hard. I think we had a top two or three car, but we didn’t get to show it.

    Does Kahne have what it takes to win the Chase? Probably not. He was a late qualifier for the Chase, but one thing is for sure: He drives hard and doesn't give up. He could have folded in this race, yet he came away a contender.

Loser: Aric Almirola

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    Paul J. Bergstrom/Associated Press

    Aric Almirola was the subject of controversy when he won the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. He became the poster child for what some thought was wrong with the new win-and-you’re-in format. He just so happened to be in front during a rain delay and just like that, he won.

    What Almirola needed to do was validate the win to let fans and haters know his victory wasn’t some blemish on the Chase. He didn’t do so at Dover, getting lapped by Harvick on Lap 46.

    "Just sad, disappointed," Almirola told ESPN after the race. "We picked a really bad day to run like that. We’ve been really inconsistent. We have really good weeks and really bad weeks. This week we just missed it.

    Almirola finished 29th at Dover and failed to advance to the Contender Round of the Chase. Ultimately, it wasn’t exactly a surprise, just a disappointment, and it was validation for those who thought his win at Daytona was a blight on a rule.

Winner: Rick Hendrick Has 33 Percent of the Contenders

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    Tom Strattman/Associated Press

    As if it wasn't impressive that Rick Hendrick had 25 percent of the Challenger field, he's now got 33 percent of the remaining 12 drivers. Gordon, Johnson, Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all advanced to the next three races.

    There was mixed results from his fantastic four. Gordon won, Johnson finished third, Kahne was all-out to grab 20th and Earnhardt took 17th.

    "He’s got the bit in his teeth," Hendrick told ESPN about Gordon. "He wants that fifth championship really bad. This last 50 [miles] with Kasey trying to get in, Jeff leading the race without it going to caution. I’m too old for this."

    Johnson, who had won nine times at Dover, finished a quiet third, but he did nothing demonstrative to suggest he and crew chief Chad Knaus have figured out how to win the Cup this year. Still, Johnson moves on and so does every other Hendrick car.

    Forecasting a bit, it appears Johnson and Gordon have created some separation between Junior and Kahne. It will be interesting to see where these four go and if Hendrick will be holding the Cup at the end.

Loser: Kurt Busch

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Kurt Busch made his 500th start at Dover and was one of those drivers on the fringe. He reflected on Fox

    Being a racer that gave it all every week. Being a racer that you could count on to give it his all every week, a guy that could race at any kind of track; short tracks, road course, superspeedways, intermediates. I have wins at all of them. I have poles at all of them. It's about being competitive week-in and week-out. That's what I hope to continue to do for another 300 starts.

    He expressed during the ESPN broadcast that he was looking forward to the pressure of advancing to the Contender Round. That's what all competitors aim to do. Unfortunately, he couldn't hold on toward the end and was bumped from the rest of the playoffs.

    "It was tight the last 100 miles," Busch told ESPN of his car. "I felt we were in good position to advance. You just can't expect to advance by running 15th. We gave it a good run."

    It was tight between Kahne and Busch late during the race. Ultimately, Busch got passed by too many cars late, and his points eroded, allowing Kahne entry into the top 12.

Winner: Elimination Racing

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    Kurt Busch failed to move on.
    Kurt Busch failed to move on.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    For the greater part of the season, watching a race on television can be a bit...boring. The same few drivers finishing at or near the top is great if you're a fan of those drivers, but it's bland for those more indifferent.

    Sunday at Dover was like March Madness. It was intense watching the points change from lap to lap as those bubble drivers tried crack the top 12. The cameras followed Kahne, Busch, Almirola, AJ Allmendinger and Greg Biffle. 

    Sure, Gordon, Harvick and Keselowski were doing their thing on the front end, but the scramble toward the bottom was fascinating and dramatic television.

    "It's better than what I expected," said Dale Jarrett on the ESPN broadcast. "I was excited about the prospects of this. What we’ve seen is that it adds a lot more pressure. The pressure is only going to ramp up as you race 12 drivers for eight spots. That’s only going to intensify things."

    Even Hendrick felt the heat.

    "This Chase format is unbelievable," he said during the ESPN broadcast. "You sit there and you watch and you’re one out, you’re two out, you’re three out. Man, this is going to be a hectic few weeks to go."

    And that's great news for viewers and fans. It's no longer a battle for No. 1, but now, as the points reset to 3,000 for the remaining 12, it's a race for the top eight. Three races from now, we're in for another bout of elimination racing, and it will be tighter and more thrilling than it was at Dover.

Loser: AJ Allmendinger

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    AJ Allmendinger was one of the better stories coming in to the Chase. Like B/R's own Bob Margolis wrote a week ago, "Dover isn’t one of this Californian’s better tracks. However, his team is racing over its head, and you just never know."

    He won at Watkins-Glen giving him entry into the Chase. He raced hard at Loudon to put himself in position at Dover, but ultimately, he just didn't have it. He threw his water bottle in his car and vented.

    "We sucked overall all day today," Allmendinger told ESPN. "We weren’t good enough. We didn’t deserve to make it. I’m not disappointed about not making it, I’m just disappointed by running like this. It’s all I had. I’m worn out. I was trying to get every spot possible. Just weren’t good enough."

    Any time ESPN tuned in to Allmendinger's radio, the frustration was palpable. Overall, his season is probably a win, but missing the final 12 by two points makes Dover sting all the more.

    Allmendinger said his team could still finish fifth in points overall, but his team is no longer in contention for the Cup, and, at this point, that's what matters most (though 31 other drivers would argue with that).