Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on July 23, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
MOORESVILLE, N.C. – Martin Truex, Jr., Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski have all clinched places in the next round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs via race victories or points accumulated. But the final eight playoff spots in the Round of 12 will be decided this Sunday in the Apache Warrior 400 at Dover International Speedway (7 p.m. BST, Premier Sports, MRN). Sports Gazette look at each of the following drivers’ chances to advance on Sunday:
Denny Hamlin (+44 above cutoff): Hamlin was slightly disappointed after his fifth-place finish on Sunday, but that is only because of how good he is at New Hampshire. His best track in the playoffs is behind him, but he is in excellent shape to advance to the Round of 12: he has three top-10 finishes in the last three Dover races, and a fourth on Sunday would almost certainly be enough to advance.
Matt Kenseth (+43): He was ninth in points leaving Chicago, and now is sixth after a third-place finish on Sunday. He and Hamlin are roughly in the same position: Kenseth has six top-10s in his eight Dover starts, including a victory last June. Barring the unexpected, Kenseth should be in the Round of 12 too.
Jimmie Johnson (+32): His fourteenth-place finish wasn’t exactly what the No. 48 team was looking for, but when Dover next on the schedule, there shouldn’t be much worry. Jimmie Johnson is quite simply the greatest driver to ever grace the Monster Mile, and his stats there are absurd: he has 22 career top-10s, 15 career top-fives, and 11 career victories. The man averages one win in every three races he runs there, and is looking to sweep both Dover races in 2017 after winning there in the Spring. To be fair, Johnson is not invincible at Dover: he did have a rear axle seal blow in this race two years ago that eliminated him from playoff contention. But barring a freak accident or mechanical failure of some kind, he will be advancing.
Ryan Blaney (+26): Blaney is this round’s best example of “top-10 finishes will be enough to advance”. He finished 9th on Sunday to bring his average finish over the last two races to – surprise! – 10th. That should, in theory, be good enough, but his numbers at Dover are awful of late. A 38th place finish a season ago was followed up by a 32nd place finish in June. A run like his first run at Dover, where he finished 8th, would be good enough to likely advance. Anything else and he’ll be in trouble.
Chase Elliott (+26): Elliott rebounded from the post-Chicagoland penalties by doing exactly what he needed to: posting a career-best finish at New Hampshire of 9th. This weekend should be much easier for the No. 24 team, because the media attention from the penalties will be gone. Furthermore, Elliott gets to race at a track where he has never finished outside of the top-5. If he doesn’t crash or fall victim to mechanical issues, he should be in the Round of 12.
Kevin Harvick (+25): It was not a fun weekend at New Hampshire for Harvick, who was part of the lap 151 crash on the back stretch. He finished 36th, but did become the first true beneficiary of the playoff points system introduced this season. The 15 playoff points he has earned have kept him away from the battle near the cutoff line. As to what this weekend could look like, Dover is a bit of a mixed bag. Facing elimination in 2015, Harvick won the Fall Dover race to progress to the Round of 12. But 2016 was much a much rougher year at the Monster Mile, where Harvick finished 15th and 37th in the two races there. He was ninth in the Spring, which may help provide some confidence, but avoiding mistakes and problems will be critical: any breakdown in the vein of Johnson’s rear axle seal from 2015 might make Harvick the first major driver eliminated from these playoffs.
Jamie McMurray (+9): This is the point in the standings at which things get interesting. He was 16th at New Hampshire after his excellent top-10 run at Chicagoland, and he gained four points on the cutoff line as a result. McMurray is the first driver close enough to the cutoff who may be eliminated on results alone, but his outlook this weekend will be more optimistic than the drivers around him. He was running in position to advance a season ago when a blown motor in this race knocked him out of the playoffs; outside of that, he has only finished outside the top-10 once in his last five starts. That blown engine will be on McMurray’s mind, and he will have a point to prove. Chances are high that McMurray will answer all of those questions with another top-10, and race his way into the Round of 12 on Sunday.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (+0): Stenhouse would be in the Round of 12 on the most wins tiebreaker over Austin Dillon as of now. Fifteenth in New Hampshire was okay, but it didn’t help his chase for a place in the Round of 12. Dover will be no easier for him: he crashed out of the June race in Dover after hitting the wall early and finished 39th. Before then, Stenhouse had three straight top-15 finishes, so the ability to perform is there. But it will be an nervy afternoon for the No. 17 team, and their battle to avoid elimination may come down to the last few laps on Sunday.
Austin Dillon (-0 behind cutoff): Sixteenth at Chicagoland and 19th at New Hampshire have just kept Dillon in the playoff window. Now, he comes to Dover in almost the exact same situation that he found himself in a season ago: outside of the cutoff heading into the race and in need of a good run to advance. Last year, he finished 8th to make it into the Round of 12 (and went clear of the cutoff by 10 points). This year, he enters Sunday five points closer to 12th than he was in 2016, but the pressure will be there just the same. It will be a high-stress day for the No. 3 team, and they too might be racing in the final stage to keep their championship hopes alive.
Ryan Newman (-1): New Hampshire was a definite improvement for the No. 31 team, as they improved 10 positions on their Chicagoland run to finish 13th. That puts Newman in a virtual heads-up showdown with Stenhouse and Richard Childress Racing teammate Dillon for the final place in the Round of 12. Of the three, Newman should have the mental advantage, as he is the only driver of the trio to have won at Dover before (on three different occasions), and he was the highest-finishing driver of the June race (when he ran 4th). If he can bring home another top-five finish, he may well leapfrog both Stenhouse and Dillon to get the last playoff spot in the next round.
Kurt Busch (-17): A tough day for Busch in New Hampshire, who was tangled up with Harvick in the lap 151 wreck and fell out of the race as a result, finishing 37th. His luck in the Spring race at Dover was not much better, as he got loose underneath Brad Keselowski on an early restart and crashed into him. Busch had been a top-five car up until that point, and the same setup might work for the No. 41 this weekend. But this race, in all likelihood, is a must-win if he wants to advance.
Kasey Kahne (-21): If Dover is a likely must-win for Kurt Busch, then it is a definite must-win for Kahne. The broken track bar that he suffered with 35 laps to go last weekend was gut-wrenching, as he was running just outside of the top-10 at the time. Now, Kahne will have to win at a track that he’s never won at before to advance (his best finish there is 4th). There is always the mathematical chance that Kahne could win, but the likely scenario post-race Sunday is that his final championship run at Hendrick Motorsports is over. As Parker Kligerman noted in the post-race show at New Hampshire, it would be a fitting end to Kahne’s time at one of NASCAR’s top teams: a period of his career in which he has shown glimpses of potential, but never been able to string successful races together for a myriad of reasons. He’ll look for a fresh start with Leavine Family Racing in 2018.