CON­TENDERS TRY TO CLOSE GAP ON TRUEX

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Brant James

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

2017.

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

Rac­ing

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

Rac­ing

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.

MIKE DINOVO, USA TODAY SPORTS

Kurt Busch likely needs a bold stroke for play­off ad­vance­ment.

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