NASCAR at Dover 2015: Complete Preview, Prediction for the AAA 400

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistOctober 1, 2015

NASCAR at Dover 2015: Complete Preview, Prediction for the AAA 400

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    As NASCAR prepares for race No. 3 of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, it will say goodbye to some good friends by the time the checkered flag falls.

    Namely, as Round 1 of the Chase comes to an end, the first eliminations of the playoffs will take place, with the four lowest-ranked members of the original 16-driver field ousted after Sunday’s race.

    Then it will be on to Round 2 for the remaining 12 drivers in NASCAR’s hybrid version of the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament and a spirited game of musical chairs.

    We’ll delve more into who will likely be eliminated at Dover in the "Key Storylines" slide, so read on—and let us know in comments if you agree or disagree.

    While the fate of each Chase driver is literally in his own hands, one thing that no one will have control of is the potential for some rough weather this weekend for the mid-Atlantic states, including Delaware.

    Hurricane Joaquin has been building in the Caribbean and may impact the East Coast, which could play havoc not only with NASCAR racing at Dover, but also other outside events such as NFL and college football games.

    Here’s how this Sunday’s AAA 400 shapes up, weather permitting:

By the Numbers: Dover International Speedway

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    AAA 400

    Place: Dover International Speedway

    Date: Sunday, Oct. 4

    Time: 2:30 p.m. ET

    TV: NBCSN, 1:30 p.m. ET

    Radio: Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

    Distance: 400 laps, 400 miles (one-mile banked oval)

    Defending winner: Jeff Gordon won this race last year, the fifth time in his career that he’s won at Dover. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson won there earlier this year (May 31) for the third time in the last four races.

    Youngest winner: Kyle Busch on June 1, 2008 (23 years, zero months, 30 days)

    Oldest winner: Harry Gant on May 31, 1992 (52 years, four months, 21 days)

    Youngest pole winner: Jeff Gordon on June 4, 1995 (23 years, 10 months, zero days)

    Oldest pole winner: Mark Martin on June 3, 2012 (53 years, four months, 25 days)

    Most wins: all time and active—Jimmie Johnson (10)

    Most poles: all time—David Pearson (six); active—Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman (four each)

    Most top fives: all time—Mark Martin (24); active—Jeff Gordon (18)

    Most top 10s: all time—Mark Martin (33); active—Jeff Gordon (26)

    Lead lap finishes: all time and active—Jeff Gordon (31)

    Laps completed: all time—Ricky Rudd (23,367); active—Ken Schneider (18,767)

    Laps led: all time and active—Jimmie Johnson (2,999)

    Most race starts at Dover: all time—Ricky Rudd (56); active—Michael Waltrip (48)

    Race record: Mark Martin (132.719 mph) on Sept. 21, 1997

    Qualifying record: Brad Keselowski (164.444 mph) on June 1, 2014

    Best average start: all time—Bobby Isaac (2.200); active—Ryan Newman (9.926)

    Best average finish: all time and active—Jimmie Johnson (7.889)


    TRACK NOTES

    • Total number of races at Dover: 91
    • Total number of different pole winners in Dover history: 39
    • Races won from pole: 13
    • Last race won from pole: Jimmie Johnson on Sept. 26, 2010
    • Number of race winners at Dover: 34
    • DNFs (most): all time—J.D. McDuffie (27); active—Joe Nemechek (15)
    • DNFs (least): all time and active—Jamie McMurray (zero in 25 starts)


    Statistical information provided by NASCAR Media Relations.

Key Storylines

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    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Who gets eliminated from the Chase? Being 81 points back, it’s almost a certainty that Clint Bowyer will be one of the four drivers eliminated from the Chase after Sunday’s race—unless he pulls off a Hail Mary win. Likewise, unless he wins, defending champ Kevin Harvick is also likely to fall short of the second round, given he’s 65 points back. Frankly, Harvick may not be the only surprise early exit. Several other drivers are on either side of the bubble heading into Dover, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray, Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman.

    Can Denny Hamlin continue his outstanding start? Hamlin has been the biggest surprise of the Chase thus far, earning a win in the opener at Chicagoland and a runner-up finish to teammate Matt Kenseth this past Sunday at New Hampshire. And he’s done all that with a torn ACL in his right knee. Frankly, Denny could take Sunday off, and it wouldn’t impact him, since he already has his ticket punched to Round 2.

    Will Kyle Busch’s outstanding comeback end on a bittersweet note? Kyle Busch fell from fourth place heading into New Hampshire to a tie for 13th place with Paul Menard heading into Dover. After the spectacular comeback, Busch found success on the track after recovering from his devastating crash in February, particularly the four wins he amassed in 15 regular-season races. It would be an absolute shame to see him be eliminated Sunday. But then, there has yet to be a Chase that Busch has been in where he hasn’t fallen short time and again. But…I’ve got a feeling (read on to find out why).

    What happened to Junior? After falling short last season, there was so much optimism that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would finally win his first Sprint Cup championship in 2015. Former crew chief Steve Letarte primed Earnhardt well, not to mention his new crew chief, Greg Ives. So, why, in a season where a championship was all but assured, is Junior ranked 12th heading into Dover? Even worse, he’s just one point ahead of the two drivers tied for 13th (Kyle Busch and Paul Menard). If either of those drivers finishes higher than Earnhardt on Sunday, Junior fans will once again be mumbling that well-worn refrain: “Wait ‘til next year.”

    Will Jimmie Johnson continue his Dover dominance? The six-time Sprint Cup champion has all but owned racing in recent years at Dover, with 10 wins, the most among active drivers on the banked, all-concrete one-mile track. While he’s all but certain to advance to the second round, one thing is for certain: If Johnson is to have any chance of winning a seventh Cup crown—tying him with NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most championships earned by a driver—he has to have not just a good race, but rather a GREAT race at Dover. If he does the latter, it potentially could be the kickoff point he needs to win that seventh title eight weeks from now.

Drivers to Watch

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    Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

    Matt Kenseth

    After winning at New Hampshire (along with his previous fifth-place finish at Chicagoland), Kenseth is the man with the big target on his back. Can he sustain momentum over the remaining eight races to finally win a second career Cup championship to go along with the first he earned 12 years ago in 2003?

    Don’t forget, the Chase format was originally conceived of because Kenseth won his 2003 title mainly due to consistency rather than wins. Given last Sunday’s win, Kenseth may very well go on a streak of multiple wins similar to how Tony Stewart won five races in 2011. Right now, Kenseth is the odds-on favorite to win the championship—but there’s still lots of racing left to go.

    Jamie McMurray

    If McMurray is to be taken as a serious championship contender, he has to do better in the Chase, starting with Sunday’s race at Dover. He has to become more aggressive, take more chances and race more like Kenseth, Hamlin and even Carl Edwards. Given this is his first career appearance in the Chase, McMurray has nothing to lose and everything to gain, as every accomplishment he attains and surpasses is a bonus.

    A win would be great on Sunday, but the bigger challenge will be how he performs in Round 2—which could ultimately make or break his hopes of going even deeper into the Chase.

    Martin Truex Jr.

    Dover was the site of Truex’s first career Sprint Cup win back in 2007. Plus, being a native of next-door New Jersey, Truex has long considered Dover as his home track. He hasn’t exactly gotten off to the greatest start in the Chase, but a strong run Sunday—particularly a win—could really prime him to rocket through the second round.

    In a way, we see a lot in Truex that we saw in the way Ryan Newman went through last year’s Chase (albeit Truex has one win this season, while Newman hasn’t won a race since the 2013 Brickyard 400).

    Kevin Harvick

    It’s almost a futile exercise to include Harvick as a driver to watch, given that he’s 65 points out of first place and heads into Dover in dire straights of being eliminated afterward. But let’s try to give Harvick at least some benefit of doubt. After all, he is the defending series champion. And don’t forget he was in a similar situation last year, heading into Phoenix (although not as far back as he is this time), and wound up winning the race, advancing him to the championship round.

    Harvick needs every possible point he can earn Sunday. That’s why nothing but a win matters for him. He has nothing to lose and everything to gain—at least into the second round, that is.

    Carl Edwards

    He’s off to a great start in the Chase, coming into Dover ranked third in the standings. Plus, he comes into a track this week where he’s had decent success (22 races, one win, eight top-five and 12 top-10 finishes). But other than how he performed in the 2011 Chase, when he lost the championship by a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart, Edwards has never really had a history of being hot and cold in the Chase.

    Sure, he’s hot now, but including Sunday, there are still eight races to go. Can he keep doing what he’s doing? Check back with me in about five races from now.

Favorites

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    Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

    Jeff Gordon

    Admittedly, Gordon is not in the most stable position heading into Dover. If he has trouble with his car or, worse yet, runs into trouble not of his making, his chances of advancing into Round 2 of the Chase could go either way. But Gordon has an exceptional record at Dover (45 starts, five wins, 18 top-five and 26 top-10 finishes, plus four poles). If there was ever a place for him to finally get his first win this season, Dover is the place, and Sunday is the day.

    Jimmie Johnson

    How can you not include Johnson among favorites at Dover, given his incredible track record there (27 starts, 10 wins, 15 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes, along with three poles). Johnson has been exceptionally strong of late: he’s won three of the last four races at Dover. And in the fourth, he had a bad day: He finished third. But sooner or later, every driver’s good fortune has to go bad at a track where he has previously dominated. Is Sunday the day JJ’s dominance ends—or continues?

    Ryan Newman

    So much has been made about Jimmie Johnson’s and Jeff Gordon’s dominance at Dover. But very little has been said about the outstanding success Ryan Newman has had there: 27 starts, three wins, six top-five and 13 top-10 finishes, along with four poles. Newman has not won a Sprint Cup race since the 2013 Brickyard 400. He’s long overdue, and a win would not only assure he advances to the second round, it could potentially be the start of Newman going on to win several races—and ultimately the championship.

    Joey Logano

    Granted, Logano has never won a Sprint Cup race at Dover, but with three top-five and eight top-10 finishes, he’s almost a certainty to have a strong run Sunday. Logano has come close several times to winning at Dover. While he’s already a lock to advance to Round 2 regardless, a win would be a boost for Logano and his team going into that next round. And if that happens, watch out; Logano could ride that wave of momentum all the way to the championship.

    Brad Keselowski

    The 2012 Sprint Cup champ has been hit-and-miss at Dover. In 11 starts there, Keselowski has one win and four top-five finishes, plus one pole. But he’s also finished outside the top 10 in seven other races. Dover is a track that plays to Keselowski’s strength—having the feel of a short track but with plenty of room to pass. With just one win thus far this season, Keselowski has flown under the radar. It’s about time he puts himself on the championship radar once again.

Dark-Horse Pick: Kyle Larson

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    Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

    I did pretty well last weekend with my prediction of Greg Biffle as my dark-horse pick (he finished fourth).

    I’m hoping to have the same kind of good fortune with this week’s dark-horse pick, Kyle Larson.

    After a great rookie-of-the-year season in 2014, Larson has struggled in his sophomore campaign.

    Still, I believe he can win a race in the eight that remain.

    And given Dover’s one-mile banked all-concrete racing surface, this could be the place where Larson finally breaks through for his first career Sprint Cup win.

And the Winner Is: Kyle Busch

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    Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

    Sure, with 10 wins there, Dover is supposedly Jimmie Johnson’s track.

    But Johnson is going down Sunday.

    And the man who will take him down is the one and only Kyle Busch.

    When it comes to clutch performances and crunch time, Busch is just as good as Johnson, in my opinion.

    Plus, there’s more on the line for Kyle than JJ, as the former is facing elimination Sunday.

    One other thing to consider is in 21 starts at Dover, Busch hasn’t been half shabby: two wins, nine top-five and 13 top-10 finishes.

    With everything on the line, Busch reaches back into his bag of tricks and pulls this one out to advance to the second round. He will not be denied.

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