Dover marks the first race in the Round of 12 for drivers in the Monster Energy Series after four drivers saw their championship hopes dissolve at Charlotte.
Twelve drivers got to let out a huge sigh of relief after advancing from the first round of the NASCAR Monster Energy Series playoffs, but this weekend the pressure to perform returns as the series comes to Dover’s Monster Mile.
Three drivers entered last weekend locked in to the next round. Defending champion Martin Truex Jr. was assured a spot due to his points lead, while Kyle Bush and Brad Keselowski made it in with wins at Richmond and Vegas respectively.
Kevin Harvick, one of the series’ hottest drivers this year with seven wins going into Charlotte, was almost assured to get in based on his 57 point cushion above the 13th place driver.
Ryan Blaney, taking the last of the top 12 spots, and Alex Bowman, at 11th, were the closest to the danger zone heading into Charlotte, and with big names such as Clint Bowyer, who had already won twice this year, seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, and perennial contender Denny Hamlin all below the cutoff, the pressure to perform on Charlotte’s new “Roval” layout was immense.
Hamlin suffered early in the playoffs with a wreck in Vegas and he was unable to rebound in Richmond, where he finished 16th. Erik Jones also wrecked in Vegas and finished 40th before following that up with an 11th place finish at Richmond. Both needed a win or good finishes combined with troubles from others in the Chase for any hope to advance, but that didn’t happen.
Johnson and Bowyer found themselves outside the top 12 after finishing outside the top 20 at Vegas. Both finished inside the top 10 at Richmond – Johnson 8th and Bowyer 10th – leaving them just short of the cutoff. While Bowyer was able to work his way into the top 12 and advance, thanks in part to Austin Dillon’s misfortune, Johnson was not so lucky. The seven time champ had worked his way into the top 12, but a last lap attempt to pass Martin Truex took out both drivers, knocked Johnson from the top 12 and gave the win to Blaney.
Drivers knew going in that Charlotte would be a wildcard in the race for the championship as the track put together a road course configuration that many had trouble with in test and practice sessions.
Heading into this weekend’s race at Dover, the 12 drivers who advanced are all looking to secure a victory and a guaranteed spot in the Round of Eight. That’s especially true with Talladega coming up next on the schedule, a race known for surprises and multi-car crashes.
After that, the drivers below the cutoff will have only Kansas to recoup before the field is trimmed again.
Harvick, who has seven wins this year and who won the spring race at Dover, will be looking to make a sweep. That hasn’t been done since 2009, when Jimmie Johnson won both Dover races. Harvick has two wins at the track in his career, his other win coming in the fall 2015 race. Kyle Busch also has to be considered a favorite with seven wins this year. Busch won the fall race last year and has gone to victory lane at Dover three times in his career.
Among the other playoff contenders: Truex has two Dover wins; Keselowski 1, Logano 0, Almirola 0, Larson 0, Kurt Busch 1, Chase Elliott 0, Alex Bowman 0, Ryan Blaney 0, Clint Bowyer 0.