The pre-race activity at Dover International Speedway more or less confirmed preconceptions. The drivers with the best records like Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, and Martin Truex Jr. were near the top of the leaderboard. Drivers with momentum on their side from 2018 like Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch were impressive as well, and the battle for the top spots in the AAA 400 is going to be intense.
Last year, Larson (158.103) qualified in the top five for both Dover races. He led the most laps in the combined events and swept the top five in race finishes. On Friday, he won the pole for the AAA 400. That is his first career pole on this track. We would say that it elevates his prediction, but we already had him listed as second on the Cheat Sheets.
Kevin Harvick (157.494) posted the second-fastest lap and lines up on the outside of Larson. He is getting a lot less attention since his three-race winning streak ended. The biggest reason for that was the way in which he snapped his streak. He made a rare mistake trying to side-draft Larson at Auto Club Speedway and wrecked. He has finished seventh or better in every race since.
We want to believe Jimmie Johnson is capable of earning his 12th Dover win this week, but that is almost certainly not in the cards. By all reports, it would seem that even the driver and crew chief are not thinking in those terms and are prepared to work on their program and take the best possible result. For Johnson – at this track – that should easily result in a top-10. Qualifying 19th, he is going to add at least nine or 10 place-differential points to the tally.
The Joe Gibbs Racing sophomores Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones both qualified in the top 12. They swept the top 15 at Dover last year – in fact, Suarez swept the top 10. As a way to extend one’s salary cap, there are few better options.
Team Penske did not make a lot of noise in qualification. Joey Logano qualified 18th; Brad Keselowski starts eighth. They found significantly more speed in race trim, however. Logano and Keselowski posted laps within .006 seconds of one another and have made themselves more relevant in the process. Logano’s poor qualification and pit selection makes him a little less attractive.
In Happy Hour, Aric Almirola topped the charts. He has lagged behind his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates all season, but not by a wide margin. He has practically swept the top 15 this year, with only one result worse than 17th. Qualifying 13th, he has the ability to score positive place-differential points and should finish somewhere on the cusp of 10th-place.
Elliott was second-fastest in Happy Hour. He qualified sixth for the race and his 10-lap averages are in the top 10 range. NASCAR Statistical Services does not publish 15- and 20-lap averages, but Elliott presumably topped those charts according to the television announcers. If Dover maintains long runs, he should be able to at least contend for the win and we will get to see if he can apply the lessons learned last fall when he was chased down by Kyle Busch and passed with two laps remaining.
Keselowski had the quickest 10-lap average in the morning session and with a start near the front of the field, he should be able to finish among the top 10 at the end of segment one.
Clint Bowyer was quickest in Happy Hour and seemed extremely comfortable with his setup. He starts the race 12th and should also be a top 10 contender. Given his more affordable price in most salary cap games, Bowyer is a better value overall than Keselowski, but both are recommended.
The driver with the second-quickest time in both sessions was Kyle Busch, however, and he is hard to discount under any conditions. His last three fall races ended in results of second or first, but his spring efforts have not been nearly as strong. Still, it is impossible to count him out and it’s likely that he will be Larson’s and Elliott’s strongest challenge in the closing laps.