By Matt Weaver — Well, that certainly lived up to expectations, didn’t it?
Dover will likely never produce the most spectacular racing on the schedule but the added element of playoff eliminations absolutely made up for it and transformed the AAA 400 into one of the more dynamic and dramatic races of the season.
Jeff Gordon won his fourth race of the season on Sunday but was somewhat overshadowed by those eliminated from the Chase for the Championship, a list that includes Kurt Busch, AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle and Aric Almirola.
To NASCAR’s credit, they have created a system that certainly generates a considerable amount of talking points at a time of the year when it is needed most, during the first peak of NFL Football season.
While many fans have criticized the lack of passing for the lead and the predominance of clean air, there appeared to be more passing at Dover this year than in season’s past and the Chase bubble provided additional storylines to focus on, even when the battle for the lead grew stale.
Let’s talk about the winner first.
As the regular season champion, Gordon garnered much of the attention as the de facto championship favorite, but the Drive for Five took a backseat to Team Penske when Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano won the opening races at Chicagoland and New Hampshire. With a win on Sunday, Gordon recaptured the spotlight and made a statement in the process.
Gordon passed Keselowski on the track with 95 laps to go and never looked back, sending the message that the No. 24 team had also saved their best for the final 10 lap stretch of the season.
Their victories entering the second round of the playoffs raise another interesting question. During the regular season, wins resulted in bonus points that carried over into the Challenger Round, providing a cushion of sorts for Keselowski, Logano, Gordon and their fellow race winners. But that rules does not apply to the Contender Round as each of the remaining playoff drivers have been reset to 3000 points regardless of wins.
NASCAR spent all off-season telling teams, media and fans that winning means everything. Now on the eve of a three-race bracket that includes combustible Kansas and Talladega, when bonus points could mean everything, the value of a victory in the Chase means considerably less.
This wins during the Chase should pay the same dividends in the playoffs up until the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
And while that would only mean a three-point advantage for Keselowski, Logano and Gordon respectively, this first round proved that a single point could conceivably make all the difference between a championship and staving off elimination.
As for the four eliminated on Sunday, there were no real surprises to come out of Dover. Despite winning at Martinsville in April, Busch never had the look of a champion this season as he battled to develop chemistry with his new team at Stewart-Haas Racing.
The struggles of Biffle have been well-documented and it could be argued that he and his team exceeded expectations given the engineering missteps that Roush Racing made during the spring.
Uber-underdogs Allmendinger and Almirola gave it a more impressive effort than most in the sport believed them capable of but they weren’t perfect, a likely prerequisite for both the No. 47 and 43 teams to advance in the second round. Almirola will be haunted by the blown engine at Chicagoland that ruined his championship run before it truly began while Allmendinger never had the handling to compete with those remaining in the Chase.
The Chase has field has been reset to 12 with seven races remaining. Onwards to Kansas and the Contender Round.