Sunday’s running of the Drydene 400 at Dover International Speedway was the first race of the three-race Round of 12 that will eliminate four drivers after races at Talladega and Kansas.
Dover wasn’t expected to be the race in this round that would have the biggest impact on which of the playoff drivers would be moving on to the next round but the race’s final results may prove that line of thinking wrong.
It didn’t take long on Sunday to figure out that when the checkered flag did finally wave that several of the bigger names in the playoff field would leave Dover finding themselves in a hole and maybe forced into a position of having to win one of the next two races to advance. The defending series champion Joey Logano set the tone for the day when he had to take his Ford to the garage before the green flag waved because of a mechanical issue with the rear axle of the car.
He eventually did return back to the race but was 24 laps down on his way to a 34th place finish.
The day was even worse for defending race winner and playoff contender Chase Elliott who entered Sunday’s race coming off of a win last week on the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
His Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet only completed eight laps before he had to come down on pit road with a blown engine. His early exit from the race saddled him with a last place finish of 38th.
Ryan Blaney is the third driver to leave Dover knowing that he may have to win one of the next two races to transfer to the next round. He was putting together a solid day in the points as he picked up points in both stages and ran in or near the top-10 for most of the day.
All of that changed when he lost the brakes on his Penske Racing Ford and had to go to the garage area leaving him with a 35th place finish.
While Dover seriously put Logano, Elliott and Blaney’s playoff hopes in jeopardy, it may have provided Kyle Larson with the shot in the arm that he needed to advance deep into the playoffs as he broke his 75-race winless streak by capturing the checkered flag with a very impressive 1.578-second lead over second place driver Martin Truex Jr.
The win automatically punches his ticket into the Round of 8 and gives him an additional five playoff bonus points that will transfer with him into the next round.
Larson’s win makes him the first ever Chip Ganassi Racing driver to advance into the Round of 8 and it puts more pressure of the rest of the field that may have to rely on their position in the points to become one of the eight drivers to transfer after Kansas.
This weekend’s race at Talladega is not the kind of race that a driver wants to enter knowing he has to have a good day in the points as this track is known for having those large multi-car wrecks that can ruin a driver’s day by being caught up in a mess made by another driver.
Alex Bowman showed the rest of the playoff field what a good finish can do for a driver’s fortunes with his third-place finish. He entered the race one point below the cutoff line in ninth place but will go to Talladega 17-points above the cutoff line in seventh. His big swing in the points was aided by the poor finishes of some of his fellow playoff drivers.
Making up that many points on the field may be tough for Logano, Clint Bowyer, Elliott and Blaney because if the rest of the field puts together good finishes there just will not be enough points to gain to make the move above the cutoff line.
It still comes down to what it has all season long, and especially now as the number of playoff races continue to dwindle, that it is all about capturing the checkered flag.
A win removes the pressure and allows the teams to begin focusing on the next round of races.
Steve Mickey writes about NASCAR for HD Media.