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Chasing the Cup

Chasing 2014 fall Dover

by Dan Beaver
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:09 pm ET

The Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway seriously shuffled the order of the top 16 and as a result, only three drivers are truly safe entering the AAA 400. Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano locked themselves into the Contender round with victories at Chicagoland and New Hampshire respectively. Kevin Harvick has a 41-point advantage over the cutoff position and would need for the Chase field to virtually invert itself to lose his invitation, but a bad run could put nearly everyone else’s berth in question.

Jimmie Johnson has a 31-point advantage over the cutoff position, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have 28 points cushions, and Jeff Gordon has a 21-point buffer, so they become the next most likely drivers to advance on points—unless they crash early and the nine to 13 drivers below them have stellar runs.

Positions eighth through 16th are separated by only 18 points, which means that any of them can climb into or drop out of the top 12 without a lot of complicated scenarios. This is precisely what NASCAR hoped would occur in the first round of the playoffs, although they could not have anticipated that half of the Chase field would experience problems in a single race. Last week, it seemed that every time a caution waved it was for one of the playoff contenders.

Denny Hamlin probably illustrates the biggest object lesson learned last week. A mechanical issue with his fuel filler line caused him to lose four lap making repairs. In heavy traffic, he got swept into an accident that occurred ahead of him on the track and he ultimately finished 37th. Hamlin plunged from sixth in the points to 13th and now must finish six to eight positions ahead of Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, and AJ Allmendinger to feel safe about advancing. Points are volatile in the second round of Chase and that is going to become more pronounced in the Contender and Eliminator rounds.

Kurt Busch cut a tire on lap 223 and slammed the wall hard. He had to make repairs and finished just one position ahead of Hamlin. That dropped him from ninth in the standings to 15th. Jeff Gordon also cut a tire and hit the wall as hard as Busch, but his problem came in the closing minutes and he was able to salvage a 26th-place finish and remain on the lead lap.

Dover is a treacherous track, so drivers and fantasy owners need to be prepared for more carnage. As the inimitable Yogi Berra famously said, “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

Joey Logano (4 wins / 2,096 points)
Chase Outlook: first
Last week’s outlook: third
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Dover: 10.83
Kansas: 18.33
Charlotte: 13.17

Both Penske drivers seem to be able to win almost at will. They had some difficult times during the regular season, but the most likely reason for those were that they were experimenting after getting locked into the Chase. When they have needed to, they have been able to buckle down and run up front. Logano has shown much less consistency during his career than Keselowski and that would hurt him under the old format. Now, he just needs to have one stellar run each round and not finish too badly in the other races to get to Homestead.

Brad Keselowski (5 wins / 2,097 points)
Chase Outlook: second
Last week’s outlook: second
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Dover: 12.83
Kansas: 9.67
Charlotte: 13.17

After getting locked into the Contender round with his Chicagoland victory, Keselowski showed a willingness to gamble and drive aggressively. He lost a lot of ground to the leaders with an alternate tire strategy and then spun and crashed pushing too hard trying to pass Matt Kenseth. He managed to overcome both issues and battle for the lead once more. It is that kind of persistence that earned him his first championship.

Jeff Gordon (3 wins / 2,670 points)
Chase Outlook: third
Last week’s outlook: first
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Dover: 8.17
Kansas: 13.67
Charlotte: 15.83

At 8.2, Gordon’s three-year average at Dover is better than anyone’s except his teammate Jimmie Johnson with a 4.3. He should be able to finish well and advance to second round of the Chase—at which point all of the drivers will be equal once more. His cut tire at New Hampshire should not affect his overall handicap, unless it is coupled with another catastrophe this week at Dover.

Kevin Harvick (2 wins / 2,090 points)
Chase Outlook: fourth
Last week’s outlook: fifth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Dover: 9.33
Kansas: 6.33
Charlotte: 6.50

One race is not enough to completely reverse one’s opinion about the No. 4 team, but they managed to have an error-free race and Harvick rewarded them by keeping them in contention all afternoon. The difference between the top three drivers last week was marginal and Harvick could have won as readily as Logano. If he continues to race with the leaders, harvick is going to get another victory soon and that will keep him advancing into the next rounds.

Jimmie Johnson (3 wins / 2,080 points)
Chase Outlook: fifth
Last week’s outlook: sixth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Dover: 4.33
Kansas: 5.17
Charlotte: 12.50

Johnson finished fifth last week on the heels of a 12th at Chicagoland. These are the kinds of results a driver needs to advance to the Contender and Eliminator rounds, but the competition gets tighter with each level. Johnson knows how to win championships, and it is just as likely that he is pacing himself at this stage of the season as it is that he is truly struggling, but for the moment he does not look like the driver fantasy players are accustomed to seeing.

Kyle Busch (1 win / 2,077 points)
Chase Outlook: sixth
Last week’s outlook: seventh
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Dover: 15.50
Kansas: 23.17
Charlotte: 10.33

Last week was precisely the type of performance that typifies Busch. He sustained crash damage in an accordion-style accident that also damaged Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne. The team made effective repairs and got him back into the top 10, which seemed highly unlikely given the shape of his car—or to be more accurate, the misshape of his car. Busch has willpower and skill. So long as he does not try to get more out of the car than it will give, he will continue to improve.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (3 wins / 2,077 points)
Chase Outlook: seventh
Last week’s outlook: eighth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Dover: 10.00
Kansas: 10.00
Charlotte: 19.60

Last week Earnhardt scored his first top-10 in five races, but he was just barely inside that mark. Like his teammate Johnson, that is enough to keep him advancing into at least the Eliminator round unless he has a problem along the way. As the field gets smaller, the volatility of points will become increasingly extreme, but Driver 88 should be able to establish himself as a contender in the next two races at Dover and Kansas because he has solid results there in the past three years.

Matt Kenseth (0 wins / 2,057 points)
Chase Outlook: eighth
Last week’s outlook: fourth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Dover: 15.50
Kansas: 5.17
Charlotte: 7.67

From Kenseth on down, handicapping a driver gets complicated. Their ability on Contender and Eliminator tracks will not mean anything if they have trouble at Dover and since that track is dangerous, there is no telling exactly who will be affected. Kenseth has excelled at Dover in the past, but back-to-back bummers in fall 2012 and spring 2013 skew his average finish. If he stays out of trouble, he will easily advance to the next round, but he needs to regain his consistency to move furhter up the rankings.

Denny Hamlin (1 win / 2,049 points)
Chase Outlook: ninth
Last week’s outlook: 10th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Dover: 17.17
Kansas: 14.20
Charlotte: 8.00

Two problems took Hamlin out of contention last week at New Hampshire and ruined yet another race on a short, flat track for this master of that type. That will impact his handicap later in the year at Martinsville and Phoenix because even bad luck has to factor into the formula, but he did show strength before his problems occurred. Hamlin led for 32 laps in the early stages of the Sylvania 300 and that is where the team’s focus will be as they enter Dover.

Carl Edwards (2 wins / 2,057 points)
Chase Outlook: 10th
Last week’s outlook: 12th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Dover: 16.17
Kansas: 9.33
Charlotte: 7.33

Edwards has to survive Dover first, but if he does it is likely that he will move further up the grid in the next couple of weeks. His three-year average at both Kansas and Charlotte are strong even while Roush-Fenway Racing has struggled on that track type this year. The driver of the No. 99 has earned only one top-10 in his last three Dover races, but half of his attempts in that span ended in top-15s and that is likely to be just enough to get him to the next round.

AJ Allmendinger (1 win / 2,056 points)
Chase Outlook: 11th
Last week’s outlook: 15th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Dover: 17.50
Kansas: 28.40
Charlotte: 21.75

Last week it was fairly easy to write off any chance of Allmendinger advancing to the second round of the Chase, but as more and more drivers experienced problems, he moved up the order through attrition and scored a top-15 at New Hampshire. Dover is not one of his better tracks overall, but if the same scenario plays out this week he could advance and then the points will reset once more. NASCAR is filled with Cinderella tales and Allmendinger could be 2014’s feel-good story.

Kurt Busch (1 win / 2,047 points)
Chase Outlook: 12th
Last week’s outlook: ninth
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Dover: 16.50
Kansas: 16.83
Charlotte: 19.67

Like Hamlin, Busch also experienced a pair of problems at New Hampshire. A loose wheel caused him to pit twice midway through the event and then a cut tire sent him hard into the wall. He is only eight points outside of the cutoff, but he needs to outperform too many drivers to make him an automatic pick to advance. As badly as Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, and Ryan Newman have performed, he can probably sneak into the Contender round, but as long as Stewart-Haas Racing continues to make mistakes, he will always be in jeopardy of getting bounced.

Ryan Newman (0 wins / 2,055 points)
Chase Outlook: 13th
Last week’s outlook: 10th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Dover: 22.33
Kansas: 21.33
Charlotte: 12.17

Newman had a solid run going at New Hampshire for two-thirds of the race. He sustained some damage in the Kenseth/ Busch/Kahne stack-up and never fully recovered. Instead of hovering around the top 10, he finished just outside the top 15. If that had happened to another driver, he might be considered a decent gamble to finish among the top 12, but Newman has not shown enough strength to assure players that he will run well at Dover. Any of the drivers from ninth through 16th could advance, however, and Newman cannot be entirely discounted.

Kasey Kahne (1 win / 2,055 points)
Chase Outlook: 14th
Last week’s outlook: 13th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Dover: 13.83
Kansas: 5.67
Charlotte: 5.17

Kahne has one of the best records on the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks of Kansas and Charlotte of any of the Chase contenders. He won his single race on another track in this same type at Atlanta, so if he gets past Dover he is likely to surge up the rankings. Other than in isolated events, he has not shown enough power to believe he will finish among the top 15, especially in light of the fact that he has only four such finishes at Dover in his last nine attempts.

Greg Biffle (0 wins / 2,049 points)
Chase Outlook: 15th
Last week’s outlook: 14th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Dover: 19.33
Kansas: 14.67
Charlotte: 15.17

Last week Biffle lost two laps in the early-to-middle stages of the Sylvania 300 and would have finished much worse than 16th if not for the rash of cautions late in the going that allowed several drivers to make up multiple laps. Biffle cannot count on that same thing happening this week at Dover, and he is one of the most likely racers to finish among the bottom four Chasers. Given his standing of 14th in the points’ standings, if that happens it will end his Chase hopes.

Aric Almirola (1 win / 2,045 points)
Chase Outlook: 16th
Last week’s outlook: 16th
Next three tracks, 3-year average finish
Dover: 15.40
Kansas: 15.60
Charlotte: 19.00

Last week Almirola called his shot. He said the No. 43 needed to finish fifth in the next two races and get a little help from the competition. He finished sixth in the Sylvania 300 while half the field struggled. He needs to make up only 10 points on either Newman or Kahne, four on Hamlin and Biffle, and two on Kurt Busch to advance. If he can score a solid top-10 in the AAA 400, that should be well within reach.

 

Three-year averages (sorted by All Remaining Chase tracks’ average)

Driver

Chase
to Date

All Remaining
Chase Tracks

Dover

Contender

Tracks ^

Eliminator

Tracks #

Homestead

Kevin Harvick

4.00

10.69

9.33

11.33

10.92

8.67

Matt Kenseth

15.50

10.77

15.50

9.11

11.58

8.00

Kasey Kahne

18.00

11.03

13.83

9.61

11.08

13.67

Jimmie Johnson

8.50

11.23

4.33

12.50

9.17

25.67

Brad Keselowski

4.00

12.51

12.83

12.83

11.58

13.67

Carl Edwards

18.50

12.59

16.17

12.67

11.67

8.67

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

10.00

13.49

10.00

15.44

14.00

8.00

Denny Hamlin

21.50

13.81

17.17

13.94

12.45

11.33

Greg Biffle

19.50

13.87

19.33

14.06

9.00

21.33

Kyle Busch

7.50

14.08

15.50

16.28

10.45

11.33

Jeff Gordon

14.00

14.59

8.17

16.83

16.67

5.67

Aric Almirola

23.50

15.91

15.40

16.60

16.00

11.50

Joey Logano

2.50

15.97

10.83

19.67

13.58

13.67

Ryan Newman

16.50

17.46

22.33

19.06

14.33

10.67

Kurt Busch

22.00

20.97

16.50

21.94

21.67

21.33

AJ Allmendinger

17.50

21.00

17.50

23.33

18.13

25.50

 

^ The Contender tracks are Kansas, Charlotte, and Talladega
# The Eliminator tracks are Martinsville, Texas, and Phoenix

Dan Beaver

Dan Beaver has been covering fantasy NASCAR for more than 20 years with a little help from his >650,000 record database. He can be found on Twitter @FantasyRace.