The third race of the 10-installment NASCAR Chase For The Cup goes Sunday afternoon in Dover at 1 PM EST. While any of the 12 drivers eligible for NASCAR’s top prize can still win it, only four are in realistic striking distance and after an up-and-down year marked by controversy, Jimmie Johnson has an opportunity to take control of this race.
Johnson is holding a narrow one-point lead over Brad Keselowski in the point standings and Dover is a track that’s been quite good to the leader. Johnson won here in June. While he didn’t get a Dover win in 2011, he grabbed three of the four races here in 2009-10. A win on Sunday gives him a chance to open up some breathing room at the top and effectively eliminate a lot of drivers who are fighting to hang on.
One of those drivers fighting to hang on is Denny Hamlin, who’s in third place and seven points out. Dover has not been kind to Hamlin over the years, so this is batten-down-the-hatches and survive time for him. And last year’s champion Tony Stewart, is ten points out and according to TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill, that’s the fringe of realistic contention. While there’s still time for any of the other eight eligible drivers, it would take a sustained run of excellence for them to run down the leader.
Thus we come to Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway. For those who don’t regularly follow NASCAR, remember that more than the 12 eligible drivers are in the field—it’s a normal-sized race where anyone can grab the purse, but in the bigger picture that we track here at TheSportsNotebook, only twelve really matter.
“Dover is a unique track,” Bill told TheSportsNotebook. “It has its own personality and it’s not one of those damn cookie-cutters.” In terms of how that uniqueness will play out on the mile-long track, Bill suggested that while Dover doesn’t necessarily lend itself to wide-open racing, it’s at least more open than a lot of tracks, allowing for more fluidity in the standings. “There’s decent banks on the corners that make it easier to pass,” he said. And there are a lot of drivers with a lot of passing to do, both Sunday and in the big picture.