Following the Challenger Round, the excitement that made last year’s edition of the playoffs a spectacle has already emerged in the opening three races.
From the title favorite facing adversity, to some of the biggest names in the sport flirting with elimination – it was a wild start to the most thrilling portion of the schedule.
For many competitors, Dover was a test of their ability to persevere and run well under pressure. Most passed with flying colors. However, four drivers were eliminated as they were unable to perform when everything was on the line.
On Sunday, every position mattered for the 16 challengers. As the finish neared, single points separated the drivers from advancement and an early exit.
Those who will continue the championship quest rose to the occasion, defying the odds to remain alive in the battle. The four who were eliminated proved unable to match the performance level and desire of the others.
Kevin Harvick accomplished the most impressive feat in the AAA 400 – winning to advance. Had he not finished first, there was a chance he would have been eliminated. After making two costly mistakes in the opening races, he left little breathing room for the No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet team.
They executed when needed by not only scoring the victory, but dominating in route. If they showed their strongest hand on Sunday, it will be tough for the other competitors to keep up moving forward.
With the defending champion locking up a position in the Contender 12 by winning, it set up a battle among those on the bubble. In the final 30 laps of the race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jamie McMurray went back and forth, trading single points that greatly influenced the final transfer spot.
The final caution assisted the Hendrick Motorsports driver as he lost ground to McMurray on the previous restart. Earnhardt Jr. powered around the No. 1 Chevrolet and took hold of the position needed to continue his championship run.
The Coke Zero 400 winner crossed the line third, experiencing the relief of advancement while the Chip Ganassi Racing driver settled for fourth and the agony of defeat. The finish tied McMurray’s second best result of the season. However, the Chase requires drivers to reach beyond their limits and despite the tremendous effort, he failed to do so on Sunday.
Winning in the regular season elevated the 40-year old in this pressure situation. His points total tied McMurray’s at the conclusion of the AAA 400. This included the six bonus points he received to start the Chase, based on his two victories. Had it not been for one of those celebrations, he would be the one facing elimination.
This emphasizes the importance of the regular season as despite only needing a victory to qualify for the playoffs, multiple trips to Victory Lane provide a driver additional room for error once in the grueling ten race stretch.
Elimination events are a different breed of Chase races. Unless a driver scored a victory in the previous two events, the third and final of the round could lead to disaster.
Facing elimination wasn’t in question for Jimmie Johnson prior to the start of the race. The 10-time Dover winner won in May, providing reason to carry confidence into his 500th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start.
However, problems out of his control plagued his race and championship chances. Having had solid performances in the first two Challenger Round events, another consistent run was needed.
In the back of the six-time champion’s mind was the unthinkable – experiencing trouble. Any incident that required time behind the wall would surely end his quest for a seventh title. He needed an uneventful day, and the day he had was anything but. With no other Chase competitor facing the same struggles, the top seed heading into the final ten races was eliminated.
Their defeat mirrors that of a top-seeded college basketball team losing in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. It’s very rare that a team so talented is eliminated early. However, no matter what sport, mistakes are costly and the team made one on Sunday. They will learn and move forward. However, this unexpected exit will leave them questioning what went wrong so quickly.
As the dust settles in Dover, focus will shift to the Contender Round. Everything will be reset, offering a clean slate for the Contender 12. Whichever team is able to place the events of the opening round out of their minds the fastest will inherit the greatest advantage.
In the most unpredictable round of competition, a strong start is crucial. Following Charlotte, two of the most treacherous tracks on the circuit appear in Kansas and Talladega. To avoid dealing with the ensuing chaos, Charlotte will test each team’s true championship ability. Passing this test will be monumental towards deciding a champion.
By Jason Schultz
Follow on Twitter – @NASCARJason
Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky