CONTENDERS TRY TO CLOSE GAP ON TRUEX
Martin Truex Jr. quipped after winning in August at Watkins Glen International that he was especially gratified to visit victory lane at one of his multitude of home tracks.
A New Jersey native who set the foundation for his eventual foray into NASCAR in under series around the Northeast, the 37year-old is familiar with and fond of many of the venues he now plies in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
“It’s really only three or four: Watkins Glen, Pocono, New Hampshire and Dover,” Truex said sheepishly after finishing fifth in Loudon, N.H., last weekend.
Dover International Speedway just happens to be next, and there’s good memories and anticipation attached to that track, too.
Truex, then in his second full Cup season racing for now-defunct Dale Earnhardt Inc., got his first win at NASCAR’S highest level at the 1-mile concrete oval in
2007. He won there again last fall to claim two of three races in the first round of the 2016 playoffs — he was eliminated after the second round and finished 11th in points — and returns this weekend as the points leader and dominant force of the season as the first three-race segment of the
2017 postseason concludes. Though Truex already assured his entry into the next round by winning the opening race of the playoffs at Chicagoland Speedway, he welcomes Dover as a pushing off point into a round that devoured him last season. Three other drivers from the 16driver field — Kyle Busch, who won last weekend, Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski — are also safely locked in the second round.
The four drivers with the lowest point totals will be eliminated Sunday, leaving 12 to battle in the next three-race segment before another elimination Oct. 22 at Kansas Speedway.
Here is a look at the 12 playoff drivers trying to secure their spots in the next round at the Apache Warrior 400 presented by Lucas Oil (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network).
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon are tied for 12th in points after the first two races, but Stenhouse holds the tiebreaker. 5. Denny Hamlin
Car: No. 11 Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing Best Dover finish: Fourth, summer 2007 and 2010.
Notable: Still seeking speed and comfort, Hamlin said his team must improve in making his car better during race weekends to contend for a first championship. 6. Matt Kenseth
Car: No. 20 Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing Best Dover finish: Won, summer 2006, 2011 and 2016. Notable: Racing out the string with JGR, the veteran with no announced job for 2018 is producing his best stretch of the season just in time to end with a flourish. 7. Jimmie Johnson
Car: No. 48 Chevrolet Team: Hendrick Motorsports Best Dover finish: Won, summer and fall 2002; fall 2005; summer and fall, 2009; fall 2010; summer 2012; fall 2013, summer 2014; summer 2015; summer
Notable: With a record 11 career wins at Dover, the seventime and defending series champion heads to his best track. He and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates are still trying to match the pace of the speedier Toyotas, but the track’s most recent winner has seen improvement recently. 8. Ryan Blaney
Car: No. 21 Ford
Team: Wood Brothers Best Dover finish: Eighth, summer 2016.
Notable: Needs to bank some playoff points for those more desperate times ahead in the second round, after which the field will be winnowed to eight drivers. 9. Chase Elliott
Car: No. 24 Chevrolet Team: Hendrick Motorsports Best Dover finish: Third, summer and fall 2016.
Notable: The encumbered runner-up finish from Chicagoland takes away a tiebreaker for the end of this round, which probably won’t matter. But that piece of tape on the spoiler might get a special display in the Research and Development Center wall of infamy if it proves costly.
10. Kevin Harvick Car: No. 4 Ford
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
Best Dover finish: Won, fall 2015.
Notable: He doesn’t need the type of histrionics required to keep his season viable as he did in 2015, when he won at Dover to advance to the second round, but Harvick, like most non-Toyota drivers, needs to find improvement for the second round. 11. Jamie McMurray
Car: No. 1 Chevrolet
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing Best Dover finish: Second, summer 2006.
Notable: Winless, and with just two top-5s this season, the 16-year veteran would figure to be in jeopardy at the end of the next round. 12. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Car: No. 17 Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing Best Dover finish: Eighth, fall 2015.
Notable: His kingdom is restrictor-plate tracks, with two wins this season, though the Talladega Superspeedway doesn’t come until the next round. Stenhouse holds the tiebreaker for the final spot, but his first round has been marked by missteps and anxiety. 13. Austin Dillon
Car: No. 3 Chevrolet Team: Richard Childress
Best Dover finish: Eighth, fall 2016. Notable: Sixteenth at Chicagoland and 19th at New Hampshire are not the kind of numbers that suggest a push into the second round, but his points position is favorable, considering. 14. Ryan Newman Car: No. 31 Chevrolet Team: Richard Childress
Best Dover finish: Won, summer and fall 2003; fall, 2004. Notable: He has won three times at Dover — but that was more than a decade ago with Team Penske — and had been middling there until a fourthplace finish this summer. 15. Kurt Busch Car: No. 41 Ford
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
Best Dover finish: Won, fall 2011.
Notable: At 17 points off the advancement line, the former series champion and this year’s Daytona 500 winner is in need of a bold stroke. 16. Kasey Kahne
Car: No. 5 Chevrolet Team: Hendrick Motorsports Best Dover finish: Fourth, fall 2011; summer 2015 and 2016. Notable: Running near the top 10 for most of the race, Kahne saw his prognosis dim when a track bar broke late in the race at New Hampshire, saddling him with a 35th-place finish.
Kurt Busch likely needs a bold stroke for playoff advancement.