Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Yes, Kyle Busch Won, But Title Race Still Wide Open

Although Kyle Busch’s backstretch pass of Chase Elliott at Dover International Speedway gave the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series its first true Game 7 moment of the 2017 playoffs, it didn’t alter the fundamental balance of power or the championship outlook for that matter.

Coming into the race, we all knew the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing are fast. Guess what? They still are. 

Busch’s victory was the ninth in the last 12 races for the Toyota contingent.

We also knew that the new points system would greatly reward drivers who wracked up playoff points during the regular season.

That didn’t change either as Round 1 wrapped up.

Heading into Round 2 of the playoffs, points leader Martin Truex Jr. has 3059 points, Kyle Busch has 3041 and Kyle Larson has 3034.  To advance to Round 3 of the playoffs, they have to finish Round 2 in the top eight in points. The driver currently ninth in points, Ryan Blaney, has just 3008 points.

With margins that big over ninth place, Truex, Busch and Larson all have a great shot at advancing to first Round 3 and then the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Conversely, the bottom four in points right now — Blaney, Chase Elliott (3006), Matt Kenseth (3005) and Jamie McMurray (3003) will have a hard time getting out of Round 2.

If you believe the top three seeds will advance and the bottom ones won’t, who becomes the fourth driver to contend for the title at Homestead? The most likely prospects are Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, with Denny Hamlin a possibility as well.

So the rest of the season is shaping as a battle among the drivers and teams who have been the best all season, and when you think about it, that’s as it should be.

On to Charlotte now for Round 2, and the intensity should just ratchet up. And it’s still anybody’s championship.

Categories
XFINITY

Chad Finchum Set for XFINITY Debut at Dover

Chad Finchum has dreamed about racing in a NASCAR National Touring Series event his entire life and, on Saturday, that dream will come true when the Tennessee driver makes his NASCAR XFINITY Series debut.

The 22-year-old from Knoxville, Tennessee is a former NASCAR Whelen All-American Series champion at Tennessee’s Kingsport Speedway and a past winner in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.  Now, he has finally reached the upper echelon of NASCAR racing as he heads East to compete in Saturday’s One Main Financial 200 at Dover International Speedway, driving for Carl Long and MBM Motorsports.

“It’s nuts,” Finchum told POPULAR SPEED.  “It’s something I’ve waited on for a long, long time.  It’s been a journey.  Racing Late Models and trying to run for track championships and state championships and going from grassroots-style racing, being the backbone of the sport, into where ultimately everybody tries to get to, I just, I’m blessed to have the opportunity.  I’m going to try to make the best of it.

“XFINITY takes a lot of money obviously, and we’ve only got one sponsor with us. They’re going to be on the hood of the car.  (A) new company, Overstock Mercantile, they’ve been with us in Late Models this year, and we’ve grown with them.  They’re taking me to XFINITY.  It’s honestly an underfunded team, Carl Long is a great guy, and he’s got pretty good cars.  When you’re running against Gibbs, RCR, it’s going to be tough.”

Finchum is not looking to set the world on fire at Dover.  He just hopes to log laps, gain experience and come away with a decent result.

“I think the goal this weekend is just to get out there and finish the race and learn,” Finchum said.  “This is going to be my first time doing live pit stops and being on a radial tire.  It’s going to be my first time in one of these XFINITY cars, and it’s 300 pounds heavier than what I’m used to in a K&N or Late Model.  They’ve got more power.”

Along with learning about the car, Finchum will also have to adapt to a different style of racing.

“Got knockout qualifying and stage racing, there’s a lot of things coming up that’s new to me,” Finchum remarked.  “The main goal is to get out there and not tear anything up, qualify good, run good, learn, be safe and bring the car home in one piece and see if we can go further.”

Last season, Chad Finchum picked up a K&N Series victory at Bristol Motor Speedway.  That win has given him confidence heading into Saturday’s race at the similar, albeit larger, Dover racetrack – a venue where he has two career starts in K&N Series competition.

“It’s kind of funny because this track was handpicked for a reason,” Finchum commented.  “One, NASCAR’s approval process, Dover was the next thing on my list before I’m approved for mile and a half tracks.  And, another reason, which is a good reason, I’ve been there twice in the K&N Series, both times for Martin McClure Racing.  Dover is basically a times two Bristol.  It’s just a bigger, faster Bristol.  The feel that it gives you as a driver, the way you drive the track is almost identical to Bristol; it’s just bigger and faster.  I’ve raced at Bristol many times, Dover twice, they’re similar, concrete, high-banked.”

Generally speaking, concrete breeds confidence for Finchum.  In 2013, he won a NASCAR Whelen All-American Series track championship in a Late Model Stock Car at Kingsport Speedway in Tennessee – a 3/8-mile concrete track.

“Running at Kingsport, it being concrete, I’ve got a lot of concrete experience, and I think that’s going to help tremendously,” Finchum stated.  “I’ve given a lot of that success up when we won the Bristol race; I contributed quite a bit of that to running at Kingsport and knowing the simple things really.  That’s all racing is.  You just don’t want to go out there, practice in the heat of the day and race at night and dial your car in for something you won’t be doing.  I think that’s why we’ve done so well at Bristol in the K&N Series.”

Even though Saturday’s race will be run in daylight, Finchum’s experience at Kingsport, and at Bristol, has given him some knowledge of what to expect as the temperature changes throughout the weekend at Dover.

“Having that concrete experience under my belt, I knew what a concrete track would do with heat, rubber or whatever Mother Nature threw our way,” Finchum explained.  “We’ve used what we learned at Kingsport over there, and that’s what we’re going to do at XFINITY at Dover.  We practice and qualifying in the morning when it’s cool outside, (and) then you race in the afternoon when it’s hotter so I think there’s a couple (of) things that could play to our favor having the concrete experience that could work in our favor for the end of the race.”

Having excelled in both Late Models and K&N, Finchum now hopes to excel in NASCAR’s major leagues and fulfill a lifelong dream as he hopes to one day race in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.  Despite that recent success, he has not forgotten where he started. Last weekend, Finchum won a Late Model Stock Car event at Kingsport Speedway, besting a field of 21 cars.

The One Main Financial 200 will commence at 1 pm EST on Saturday and can be seen live on Fox Sports 1 (FS1).

E-MAIL ANDY AT  andymarquis@gmail.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Rapid Reaction: Truex Jr. Continues Momentum With Victory at Monster Mile

Martin Truex Jr. won the Citizen Soldier 400 at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. The victory marked his third in the last five races and fourth of the season. He started on the front row after qualifying was rained out, led 187 laps, and once again proved his single-car team, Furniture Row Racing, is the real deal in the championship hunt.

Along with Truex’s No. 78, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson had cars that looked like potential winners. Busch led 102 laps and settled for a runner-up result, while Johnson finished seventh.

The Round of 16 is over, and the Round of 12 for the Sprint Cup Series Chase is now set — Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson, Tony Stewart and Chris Buescher are the odd men out in the first round of the 2016 playoffs. Notably, first-time Chasers Austin Dillon and rookie Chase Elliott have advanced and will live to see another three weeks as playoff contenders.

Mechanical Failures Doom Ganassi Duo

McMurray and Larson, the two Chip Ganassi Racing drivers, were knocked out of the Chase after both wheelmen dealt with issues throughout the day. Larson’s No. 42 lost power under the first caution, and he fell off the lead lap. Then he was penalized for too many men over the wall and lost another two laps. On Lap 182, the 24-year-old’s day got even worse when his right front tire went down, and he wound up 25th

McMurray, who made his first career Chase appearance last year and was knocked out in the first round, suffered the same fate on Sunday. He reported engine problems to his team shortly before the halfway point and his No. 1 fell off the pace after running in the top 10. On Lap 193, his engine finally expired, and McMurray finished dead-last 40th place.

Pit Road Follies Again …

Johnson is a 10-time winner at the “Monster Mile” and it looked like he was on his way to an 11th victory, but a late-race penalty took away his opportunity when the No. 48’s jackman went over the wall too soon. During a cycle of green-flag stops, Johnson was forced to surrender the lead and serve a drive-thru penalty.

Pit road errors have become a recurring theme for the team that has won six Cup titles. It’s not something you’d expect to see from any championship-caliber team. Luckily for them, they had a large enough points cushion to advance into the Round of 12.

One thing the No. 48 team can take solace in is the speed in the car. Johnson dominated the first Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway in September but was penalized for being too fast on pit road during a cycle of stops and notched a disappointing 12th-place finish. Hendrick Motorsports has looked fast lately, and Johnson’s crew has the Chase experience — they just need to clean up the silly mistakes.

No Worries, Harvick Fans

Kevin Harvick was knocked out of contention early after his No. 4 suffered a broken trackbar mount on Lap 33. His Chevrolet was taken to the garage for repair and returned to the track 43 laps down. Fortunately for him, he stole the victory from Matt Kenseth at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last week, which clinched his berth in the Round of 12.

Had he not won at the “Magic Mile,” the 2014 Cup champion would have been eliminated from the Chase. Two of the first three Chase races have not been good for the 16-year Cup veteran. He finished 20th at Chicago, won New Hampshire, and ended up 37th at Dover. If he wants to be a contender at Homestead-Miami Speedway like he has been the past two seasons, he’ll need to be a little more consistent.

Looking Ahead

The Round of 12 will make stops at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway, and Talladega Superspeedway. Last year, Joey Logano swept the round by winning all three races, but not without drama. He bumped Kenseth out of the way for the win at Kansas and Kenseth got his revenge at Martinsville. In 2014, Kenseth and Logano’s Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski got into a fight following the Charlotte night race.

It seems tensions sprout in this round of the Chase, but will 2016 be the same?

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
News

Dover Completes Track Improvements Ahead of Triple-Header Weekend

Dover International Speedway will host a NASCAR triple-header this weekend, and the facility is ready after the completion of two track projects.

Following the reduction of the Sprint Cup Series field from 43 to 40 cars, Dover has eliminated three pit stalls and increased the remaining 40 by two feet. The new dimensions of each stall is now 34 feet in length and 16 feet wide. The XFINITY Series also starts 40 cars, while the Camping World Truck Series fields 32 entries.

The major improvement for Dover, however, came in the name of safety.

With SAFER barriers the main topic of conversation since February of 2015, each track has gone about ensuring every inch of their racing surface is protected. At Dover, 479 feet of SAFER barriers have been added ahead of this weekend, namely on the backstretch and Turn 3. Seventy-eight feet were added to the inside backstretch wall, and 401 feet of SAFER barrier were added to a new steel post on the inside of the track near the entrance to Turn 3.

The facility also announced the addition of 550 feet of new asphalt to the area behind pit road between the entrance of the Sprint Cup Series garage and the start – finish line.

A complete list of changes as outlined by Dover:

  • 479 feet of Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barriers were added to the one-mile, high-banked, concrete oval
  • Seventy-eight feet of standard SAFER barriers were added to the existing inside backstretch all and 401 feet of SAFER barriers were included in front of a new, steel post inside wall of a newly placed stretch of concrete in front of the grassy area at the entrance to Turn 3. The Monster Bridge near the Turn 3 entrance sits above the new construction area
  • The SAFER barriers are 40 inches high
  • Along the new stretch of wall, one foam block is placed every 5 ½ feet within the SAFER barrier to maximize safety from crash impacts
  • 190 cubic yards of concrete, 7-feet wide and 18 inches deep was added to the track
  • Along pit road, three pit stalls were eliminated, leaving space for 40 cars. Each pit stall was increased 2 feet in length, to 34 total feet. All stalls remain 16 feet wide
  • 550 feet of new asphalt was added between the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage entrance and the Start – Finish line

Track activity at Dover begins Thursday with two practice sessions for the Camping World Truck Series Dover 200.

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Editorial

WEAVER: Logano Silently Elite Entering Contender 12

Somehow, we’ve forgotten about Joey Logano.

Buried somewhere under the Kevin Harvick headlines, Joe Gibbs Racing hype and weekly retirement updates between Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, the NASCAR community seems largely unaware that the path to a Sprint Cup Series championship just might go through Logano more than any of his rivals.

The likes of Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin have each rotated the mantle of championship favorite over the past several weeks while Logano has arguably matched each of them in performance from the drop of the first green flag at Daytona.

Sure, we all gushed over his closed-eyed smiles and sudden maturity in the aftermath of the Daytona 500, but he’s largely flown under-the-radar since his season-opening triumph. Since Speedweeks, Harvick went on his legendary run of first or second-place finishes, Martin Truex opened the year with 14 top-10s in the first 15 events and Gibbs went streaking to the tune of 10 victories over the past 15 races.

Logano, by the way, won of the five of the races Gibbs didn’t during that stretch.

More to the point, Logano has been right there all year long, with each of the above having to go through the 22-year-old to achieve their own season-defining accomplishments. And the Chase for the Championship itself should be no different.

In fact, a case could be made that Logano is having the best overall season of any driver in the sport at this juncture. No one else has scored more points than Logano (eight more than Harvick) and his 8.4 average finish is the best on the tour.

The most impressive stat is that the driver formerly called Sliced Bread has only finished outside of the top-10 on six different occasions this year. That’s how championships are won in this, or any other title format.

Logano is also battled-tested after driving through the gauntlet last season, coming up one good pit stop short of fighting Harvick and Ryan Newman for the crown in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Like many NASCAR champions, Logano has lost the title and now knows how to win them, making him just as formidable in this format as the defending champion himself.

Since he was the first driver to clinch a spot on the Chase Grid, no team has had more time to prepare for the final 10 races than his and it has shown based on speed at Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover. In short, it’s remarkable how little fanfare he and crew chief Todd Gordon has received this season given their accomplishments and consistency, but perhaps that’s just as fine by them.

Based on mathematic probability, the Gibbs drivers will partially eliminate themselves before Homestead. Hendrick Motorsports is on the fringe after the abrupt elimination of Jimmie Johnson and Harvick has already used up one of his nine lives. Nothing is promised in the modern NASCAR but Logano and crew are poised to make the world notice if they just maintain the pace they’ve established from Day One.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Aric Almirola Quietly Races His Way to a Top-Five Finish at Dover

@Aric_Almirola was the highest finishing non-Chase driver in Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway, racing his way to a fifth-place finish and staying under the radar in the process.

The fifth place finish was the third top-five of the 2015 season for 31-year-old from Tampa, Florida. His finish was overshadowed by the drama in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Series championship, which Almirola was a participant in in 2014 after winning a rain-shortened race at Daytona International Speedway.

Almirola has not had the success this season he had hoped for, despite nearly racing his way into the Chase at Richmond International Raceway, a race he finished third in. His finish on Sunday was his second top-five finish this season at Dover International Speedway and his third top-10 finish at the concrete mile.

“That was a good run for us,” Almirola said after the race. “I’m really proud of the guys. That’s two top-fives in a row here at Dover. It was a really good job.”

Much like in the spring race where he started 23rd and raced his way to a fifth-place finish, the veteran racer had to do the same thing again on Sunday. He started Sunday’s race in 18th and methodically worked his way up through the field throughout the duration of the 400-mile race.

“It was a really good job,” Almirola explained. “We just struggled with getting the car in the race track most of the day and right there at the end four tires paid off for us. That was some really good adjustments by Trent and the guys and the pit crew did a good job getting me off pit road and just a really solid day for us.”

Almirola and the Richard Petty Motorsports team now look ahead to Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Almirola’s best career Charlotte Motor Speedway finish was an 11th place in the 2014 Coca-Cola 600. Earlier this season in the 600-mile marathon race, Almirola finished 17th.

Categories
Editorial

WEAVER: Harvick’s Dramatic Success Becoming the Norm

Does this really surprise you?

For the next week, a bouquet of praise will be heaped upon Kevin Harvick, Rodney Childers and the defending Sprint Cup Series champions. And while they certainly deserve all the accolades they continue to rack up during their time together, this victory at Dover just doesn’t feel that shocking.

Perhaps more frightening for the rest of the garage is that this is what Harvick is expected to do — win with his back against the wall when no other result will do. There have been only a few teams in the rich history of the sport that has been able to do what the No. 4 squad is doing right now, and it’s pretty elite company.

We’re talking about Petty, Earnhardt, Gordon and Johnson levels of excellence here.

After all, no one was amazed, astonished or even shocked when those four teams flourished on the biggest stage in their prime. It was accepted as inevitable when those legends won the Daytona 500, Southern 500 or even the Sprint Cup championship.

And even though they don’t yet have the tenure those mentioned above enjoyed, Harvick and Childers are well on their way after Sunday’s statement victory in the final race of the Challenger Round of the Chase for the Championship.

What Harvick did on Sunday just wasn’t that surprising.

That qualifier probably belongs to Johnson, who failed to advance to the second round due to a fluke parts failure, or Hurricane Joaquin missing the region after a doom-and-gloom forecast. But Harvick parking his Chevrolet in Victory Lane with everything on the line has to be the most expected outcome in the current Sprint Cup landscape.

It’s not like he pulled this result out of thin air either.

While most of the industry has been gushing over the gains made by Joe Gibbs Racing during the second half of the season, Harvick and Childers has silently remained on the same level. Even though Harvick has only won three times this season, his 9.1 average finish is still the second best in the sport, only behind Joey Logano.

And despite disastrous results to open the Chase at Chicagoland and New Hampshire, Harvick never not appeared to be the favorite in all three playoff races, leading 581 of the 967 laps during the opening round.

This is the same Harvick that has only finished outside of the top-5 on 10 different occasions this season, and has 10 second-place finishes to go with his two victories.

So no, I’m not surprised by what happened at Dover and neither should you.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattWeaverSBN

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Truex Advances; Won’t Face Additional Dover Penalty

DOVER, Del. – With an 11th place finish in the AAA 400 at Dover, @MartinTruex_Jr. advanced to the Contender Round of the Chase, but more importantly he won’t face a penalty from NASCAR.

Prior to the start of the 400-mile event, the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet was pulled from the starting grid and made to go back through technical inspection. NASCAR officials ruled the team had made an unapproved adjustment after the car had passed pre-race inspection.

A right rear fender appeared to have been flared outward, which NASCAR has outlawed this season. A year ago, flaring fenders and side skirts was a popular move for teams looking to increase the downforce on cars.

After being repaired to NASCAR’s liking, the car return to the starting lineup but Truex was penalized by having to start at the rear of the 43-car field. Prior to the green flag, NASCAR confirmed the team would face no further penalties from the violation.

Truex went on to have a quiet race. With a 15-point advantage on the Chase bubble, Truex would secure his place in the next round with a finish of 13th or better. From the drop of the green flag, he steadily gained ground and was in the top-10 by the Lap 140 mark.

As the race reached the halfway point, Truex had climbed to as high as third.

“We had to start last. It is what it is we moved on, we did what we had to do,” Truex said. “It wasn’t a great day for us. It wasn’t a great weekend. We have been just struggling trying to get the thing turning.”

Pleased with the speed his car displayed, the track position game is what ultimately hindered Truex. In the end, it was part of what Truex felt kept him from advancing forward.

“We would lose track position and being in wrong lines on the restarts then we couldn’t really go anywhere,” he said. “It was really difficult to pass today. We had good speed up front, top-five speed and then just never really could get back there once we got back in traffic.”

Courtesy of a win at Pocono Raceway in June, Truex is making his third Chase appearance.

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Johnson Dealt ‘Heartbreaking’ Elimination after Part Failure

DOVER, Del. – Just as quickly as the rear axle seal broke on the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet, @JimmieJohnson knew his title hopes for 2015 were gone.

Johnson went to the Dover International Speedway garage on Lap 104 after telling his team that something felt broken. He spent 36 laps behind the wall as the team fixed the part. Upon returning to the AAA 400, Johnson managed to gain three spots to finish 41st but it left him 12 points out of transferring to the Contender Round of the Chase.

“Definitely disappointed. It’s tough having a very inexpensive axle seal be the culprit and take away your championship hopes. It’s racing,” Johnson said. “I’ve had mechanical (failures) take me out of championships growing up that led to some success for myself that I’m sure helped me with a championship or two.

“It’s just part of racing. It just shows how critical how everything on a race team is and how important every component is and you can’t take anything for granted. Heartbreaking for sure, but nothing else we can do about it just have to go on and try to win races and close out the season strong.”

The Hendrick Motorsports driver said he had no warning of the impending failure and that it was instantaneous as he came down the frontstretch. The car began to vibrate and with no fluid left in the right rear hub, it began to seize up and shake violently.

In the garage, Johnson knew his destiny was now out of his hands. Crew chief Chad Knaus updated his driver a few times about different scenarios to advance, but Johnson understood it was all unlikely.

“We needed a few big pileups to get us back in that thing,” Johnson said. “And I didn’t see that happening.”

As is customary every season, Johnson entered the Chase as a heavy favorite to win a record-tying seventh championship. After starting the Chase with an 11th place finish at Chicago, he overcame a flat tire to finish sixth in New Hampshire. Getting through Sunday at Dover, which was also his 500th Sprint Cup Series start, should have been just a formality as Johnson is a 10-time Dover winner.

Instead, what he called a simple but delicate piece did him in. Johnson doesn’t believe the failure came from something happening during competition since the piece is situated inside the hub of the rear axle.

“As I worry about things I worry about a flat. I worry about a pit call. You worry about hard racing and something going on,” Johnson said. “You don’t worry about an axle seal failing and the rear end burning up. It’s just not on your radar.

“There are so many parts and pieces on these cars, and we take granted what they all do when it can’t be more than a five dollar part that took us out.”

With contracts for Johnson, Knaus and Lowe’s locked down at Hendrick Motorsports for the next few seasons, the attention has been on chasing another championship. Johnson won his sixth title in 2013 and was eliminated after the second round of the Chase in 2014.

This year’s disappointment, Johnson acknowledged, will chew at everyone involved.

“We pride ourselves on no mechanical (failures), “ he said. “Stuff doesn’t fall off our racecars. Our cars don’t break. So this stings for sure.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

McMurray, Johnson Among First Chase Eliminations

DOVER, Del. – For four, it’s over in Dover.

The 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup has eliminated its first four drivers following the AAA 400. Sunday’s 400-mile event shook up the Chase standings as drivers needing big days to advance pulled through. As they did, those who couldn’t afford any additional mistakes have been left moving onto 2016.

@KevinHarvick entered the day as the biggest Chase storyline. The defending champion faced a near must-win situation after Chicago and New Hampshire left him in a 23-point deficit. Harvick made it look easy by dominating for 355 laps led after initially taking the lead on Lap 24.

Also advancing into the Contender Round after entering the weekend on the outside looking in is @KyleBusch. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver didn’t have near as tall a task as Harvick did, but the No. 18 Interstate Batteries team left little to chance by finishing second and jumping back into title contention.

Harvick and Busch will join 10 others moving onto Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega. Those who are not begin with @JamieMcMurray, who finished fourth and lost a tiebreaker with @DaleJr. for the final Chase spot in the second round.

Considered one of the feel-good stories of the Chase, McMurray made the Chase for the first time but before Dover failed to earn a top-10 finish in the first two races.

“We were driving so hard those last few laps, and it’s just hard to make up any ground. And it seemed like our car was maybe better on stickers,” McMurray explained. “We haven’t run this well, honestly. We talked earlier today about that. So, I’m thrilled with our performance today. It’s frustrating that we weren’t able to make it to the next round, but it was a good day for the Nature Made car. We just needed one more point.”

The surprise elimination from the first round will be six-time series champion @JimmieJohnson, who finished 41st after a rear axle seal broke. Johnson spent 36 laps in the garage and watched as his hopes to compete for a seventh championship disappeared. By the checkered flag, Johnson came up 12 points short of advancing.

“Definitely disappointed. It’s tough having a very inexpensive axle seal be the culprit and take your championship hopes away. It’s racing. I’ve had mechanical (failures) take me out of championships growing up that led to some success for myself and I’m sure helped me with a championship or two,” Johnson said. “It’s part of racing. It just shows how critical everything is on a race team.”

A 25th place finish on Sunday afternoon also sealed the fate of Paul Menard from Richard Childress Racing. Menard, also making his first Chase appearance, hoped to follow in the footsteps of teammate Ryan Newman from last season, but failed to find consistency in the opening round of the Chase. In the first three races, Menard finished no better than 15th and was 23 points out after Dover.

The fourth and final eliminated driver was @ClintBowyer, who has experienced a little bit of everything this season. The argument could be made Bowyer’s Chase was finished following Chicago, not only because he finished 19th, but the Michael Waltrip Racing team was also issued a 25 point penalty with crew chief Billy Scott being suspended for three weeks. Although the team appealed – and lost – Bowyer finished 26th at New Hampshire and 14th at Dover, which would not be good enough.

“Our 5-hour ENERGY Toyota was good today – I’d say a top-five car. We just had some bad luck with that loose wheel early on,” Bowyer said. “We got two laps down, but were able to make those up. No one had anything for that 4 (Kevin Harvick) though.

“Real proud of everyone at MWR for all their hard work to get us in the Chase, just sorry we weren’t able to go to the next round.”

The Contender Round begins Saturday, October 10, at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall