By Steve Mickey
The Challenger Round of the Chase ended on Sunday with a triumphant Kevin Harvick standing in Dover’s victory lane knowing that his win assured him the opportunity to move in to the Contender Round with the opportunity to repeat as series champion. A trip to victory lane was the only option for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver to advance through to the next round as he entered the race outside of the top-12 in points after crashing in the first race at Chicagoland and running out of gas last week at New Hampshire.
The “win or go home” attitude that Harvick arrived at Dover with was nothing new to him as it was the exact scenario that faced him when he rolled into the next to the last race of the Chase last season at Phoenix. He delivered that day and then won the following weekend at Homestead to edge out Ryan Newman by one point for the title.
Harvick and his #4 Budweiser team have proved in the short two years that they have been together that it thrives on pressure and can deliver regardless of where the schedule takes them. Dover has been one of his worse tracks through the years and he entered Sunday’s AAA 400 without having a Dover win on his resume’. All of that changed when he and his team responded to the enormous pressure in the most dominant win of his career as he led 355 of the race’s 400 laps.
He now joins Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin as race winners that automatically move on to the Contender Round of races at Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega. Also moving on because of their position in the points to the next round will be Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Every bit as good as the dominating run by Harvick was the battle between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jamie McMurray for the final transfer spot to the next round. Earnhardt Jr. finished third one spot ahead of McMurray in fourth putting the drivers in a tie for the 12th spot. The Chase tie breaker that is used is the highest finish of the two drivers during that round and Sunday’s finishes by the two drivers were the highest finishes for either driver during the first three races.
Jimmie Johnson will not tie Richard Petty and Earnhardt Sr.’s Sprint Cup record of seven series titles as he will not be moving on to the next round. A broken rear axle seal resulted in a 41st place finish dropping outside of the top-12. Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer join McMurray and Johnson as the four drivers that will not be moving on to the next round.
The good news for those twelve drivers that will be moving into the next round is that every driver’s points will be reset to 3,000. Bonus points will not be given to drivers to start this round unlike the opening round that gave every driver that had won a race during the first 26 races of the season three points for each win. Those bonus points as it turned out was the difference of Earnhardt Jr. moving on instead of McMurray as Earnhardt Jr. had won two races while McMurray failed to capture a checkered flag during the regular season.
CHASE NOTES: The opening race of the Contender Round will take place under the lights at Charlotte Motor Speedway this Saturday and a couple of drivers have to like their chances of positioning themselves in a good spot to advance to the Eliminator Round. Jeff Gordon leads all Chase drivers with five Charlotte wins and Joey Logano has the best finishing average at the track with 10.2. Kurt Busch’s 19.1 is the worst finishing average. Brad Keselowski’s four top-10 finishes is the lowest among all of the Chase drivers.
Event: Bank of America 500
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (1.5 mile tri-oval, 24o of banking in the turns)
Date: Oct. 10, 7:00 PM
Defending Champion: Kevin Harvick