The Top Five: Breaking down the Dover race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s playoff race at Dover International Speedway…

1. Learning from the best

Chase Elliott often beats himself up even after a good day, so coughing up a lead of more than four seconds over the final 60 laps left him understandably devastated.

After pulling onto pit road, Elliott took his helmet off and covered his face with his hands while sitting in his car. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson quickly arrived in hopes of letting Elliott vent a few curse words without the cameras around, and the two chatted for several long minutes — though the seven-time champ acknowledged there was little he could say in the way of comfort.

Elliott, who now has five career runner-up finishes without a victory, said Busch “did a better job than I did” and cited his “lack of performance” and “failure” in executing.

It might be painful for Elliott fans to hear this, but he’s right: This is big-time auto racing, and Elliott didn’t deliver when it really counted. People can feel bad for him and tell him not to beat himself up so much — and he’s certainly a sympathetic figure after several heartbreaks. But the reality is he got schooled by the best in the game.

Johnson said he told Elliott the Dover race is typically won by sticking to the bottom of the track. That’s the case 95 percent of the time, Johnson said, and “lapped traffic probably played a bigger role in it than anything” for Elliott.

But that wasn’t the whole story. Because as the leader approached, Busch later said, Elliott needed to change his line.

“When you are Chase and you have been leading for that long and you’ve lost that amount of distance to the car behind you, you’ve got to move around,” Busch said in response to a question about what Elliott could have done differently. “You can’t give up four seconds of the lead and not do something else. I feel like that’s kind of where they lost it today.

“I don’t know if he was getting communication from his spotter or his crew chief or somebody just saying ‘Stick to the bottom, stick with what has got you to this point,’ but that was obviously bad advice. He should have moved around and searched for something and tried to pick off cars and traffic as quickly as possible.”

Again, we can all tiptoe around the facts because they’re uncomfortable and people want Elliott (who got some of the loudest cheers in driver introductions) to succeed and be a regular winner on the circuit. And he may very well become that, but races like Sunday will serve as painful lessons on his road to success.

“The best guys at these type of tracks aren’t scared to move around, even if they’re making decent lap time,” Busch crew chief Adam Stevens said. “You’re not going to pass the guy if you’re running in his tire tracks, so you have to be able to move and find something different.”

2. Don’t hate the player, hate the game

Speaking of lapped traffic, no one should be upset at Ryan Newman for holding up Elliott in the final laps. Newman was two points short of advancing to the next round and raced his guts out in an attempt to get in position to make up spots — should something happen in the final laps.

So expecting him to suddenly pay a courtesy to the leader in that situation, especially since Newman always races hard, just isn’t reasonable.

In that regard, Jeff Gordon’s comment to Newman after the race that resulted in a minor incident was unfortunate — but understandable given the emotion of the situation.

Gordon, despite being a FOX Sports broadcaster, is still heavily invested in Hendrick and the No. 24 team. So he apparently couldn’t help himself in the immediate aftermath of Elliott’s loss (Gordon said something sarcastic along the lines of “thanks for the help”).

Naturally, Newman didn’t appreciate the comment.

“You don’t think I was racing for my own position?” Newman said. “Just watch what you say, man.”

Gordon tried to defuse the situation by saying Newman took his words the wrong way.

“You said it as a smartass,” Newman said.

Newman was right to object to the statement, and I’m guessing Gordon felt bad. The two later made up in the garage, according to tweets from writer John Haverlin, so it’s just another moment that can be chalked up to the emotion of an elimination-style playoff.

3. Quick sand

What’s the fastest way to make up ground in a crucial playoff race? Well, one way is to stay out and hope for a fluke caution.

That’s what happened to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. during Stage 1. He was one of five cars that had yet to pit when Jeffrey Earnhardt spun out coming to Dover’s tricky pit road and nailed the sand barrels, causing a red flag.

That trapped all cars a lap down with the exception of those five — and it turned out to be a huge benefit for Stenhouse.

Just like that, Stenhouse went from seven points out of the cutoff line for Round 1 to more than 30 points in the clear. And by being able to having good track position for the rest of the stage, Stenhouse was able to finish fourth and gain seven stage points — something his rivals Austin Dillon and Newman weren’t able to get.

Ultimately, he advanced by less than the amount of those stage points — meaning that was a pivotal playoff moment.

“The feeling is lucky, really,” Stenhouse said.

He’s right, but in a survive-and-advance format, sometimes that can make all the difference.

By the way, Stenhouse’s good fortune could give him an opportunity that goes beyond just making it to Round 2. Talladega is the middle race of this round, and Stenhouse has won the most recent two plate races. What an upset it would be if he could be among the final eight drivers this season.

4. Saying goodbye

None of the four cars eliminated — Newman, Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahne or Kurt Busch — were serious title contenders, so their departure isn’t much of a surprise.

Even though the Richard Childress Racing cars finished ahead of them in the round, Kahne and Busch were probably the two who most people would have had advancing based on the strength of their teams. I actually predicted Kahne would make a mini playoff run after getting a fresh start following his Indy win, but it wasn’t to be.

Busch is probably the most puzzling of all. He started off by winning the Daytona 500 but never was much of a factor after that despite Stewart-Haas Racing having decent speed with Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer.

“Winning the Daytona 500, you always see the jinx that happens afterwards,” he said. “We experienced it. There’s a lot that goes on with it. My car never had the handle in it this year; I was always loose in, tight on exit.

“I don’t know why we had that so bad this year.”

It’s definitely weird and hard to explain, as Busch’s average finish declined from 12.0 last year to 16.2 so far this season.

5. Who’s the favorite?

Three Chevrolets and one Ford were eliminated from playoff contention, leaving each manufacturer with four cars remaining.

There are four Toyotas (Truex, Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth), four Chevrolets (Kyle Larson, Johnson, Elliott and Jamie McMurray) and four Fords (Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Stenhouse and Ryan Blaney).

Truex remains the favorite, of course, but Busch has now gained 10 playoff points on the No. 78 car in the last two races. He’s now just 18 behind, which could come into play if the teams have to race for the last spot in Round 3.

Honestly, it’s hard to predict and I’m just as unsure about who has the championship edge as I was when the playoffs started three weeks ago.

My pre-playoff picks included Truex, Busch, Larson and Hamlin — with Busch as the champ. So I guess I’ll stick with that for now, although it seems to be constantly changing.

“Week to week, you can probably change your favorite,” Busch said. “Early on the first third of the race, I probably would have said Larson is your new championship favorite. But you’ve got to let these things play out.

“I still think it’s 78, 18, 42 — and there’s different distances between us every week, depending on how we run and what all kind of goes on.”

There’s still so much left to be decided, and now it gets a bit more intense as Round 2 begins.

10 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the Dover race”

  1. My understanding from the announcers is that Ryan Newman asked his spotter to talk to the spotters for the drivers in front of him to move over as he as racing for a position in the Playoffs so why wouldn’t Jeff Gordon not be a bit upset that he held up Chase?

  2. remember the old saying. U never forget. So i imagine jeff still had some anger from newman on the race that cost him a playoff spot. But it was best part of race, cause last few races are just so boring.

  3. Not hard to figure out what’s wrong with Ku. Busch. Stewart-Haas is down this year, the switch to Ford takes some time to work out, and Ford is down this year as well (particularly after the first 1/3 of the season). Look at Harvick, he’s well off his recent years’ performance as well, in terms of wins and laps led. Again, probably the team adjusting to Ford, plus being a down year for Ford. Yes, Harvick is having a better season than Kurt, but that’s generally always the case. Given where each “should” run, they’re both down about the same i’d say. Penske had a down year when switching back to Ford from Dodge, so no surprise

    Agreed with Kay Schuh. It’s hilarious newman was whining on the radio about having the 43 move over when Newman races everybody hard regardless of circumstance. There’s nothing wrong with that, glad to see some people not just move over and fight for every inch, but you can’t then expect people to move over for you when you never given them the same courtesy

    1. The 43 wasn’t in play to advance. Newman was so why would he give up a position that might put him in the playoffs? Read the first part of this article and you will see the answer as to why Elliott didn’t win. Inexperience on his part and maybe bad info from crew chief and spotter.

  4. 1) Saying I’m upset with Chase not winning is a huge understatement but you’re right he definitely should have went to the high side when he saw Kyle coming up fast. Heck did you see what Ben Rhodes did to Christopher Bell at Vegas. He was determined the only was Bell was going to win that race was wreck him out of it.

    2) Of course you being on Twitter I know you saw all the crap about Jeff should be impartial, after all he’s an analyst , which I call BS. As you said he has a huge stake in HMS and lets not forget Ned Jarrett and his calling of the “Dale & Dale show. or DW calling Mikey to the ???? in 2001. Besides that he isn’t even in the booth now. Also if you you watch any Xfinity races you can clearly hear the bias of DJ ( whom I love dearly) when he talks about Elliott Sadler.

    3-5) I have no comment or opinion ????

  5. Don’t count out the 4, he had 59 of the fastest run in the race. More then any other driver. He also did that with out the benefit of clean air like most of the other cars that had 40 or so laps. If that speed translates to other tracks the 4 bunch may have just found something.

  6. Chase obviously should have gone up high but traffic played the biggest role today. As for Newman, all I can say is typical. If this was the second race of the year the a hole would do the same thing which is ok but frustrating.

  7. IMO Jeff Gordon should decide if he is a commentator for @NASCARonFOX or a partial car owner for Hendrick Motorsports because the way it is now it is a total conflict of interest.

    Yes, I know Jeff was not on the air yesterday since it was an NBC race but he is still a commentator who appears on FOX Sports NASCAR programming. Commentators do not wear team gear as Jeff Gordon was yesterday in his Hendrick Motorsports hat and shirt.

    I do not blame Jeff Gordon for this, I blame FOX Sports since they knew has a financial tie to HMS and should have asked him to divest his interest in the team. If he didn’t then FOX should have passed.

    Dale Earnhardt, jr will have the same issues when he takes up with NBC next season. Like @JeffGordonWeb I believe @DaleJr should divest his interest in his team to be on the air.

    Either way it is a conflict…

  8. I think everyone has dropped the ball on KB18’s drive to the front yesterday. It was pretty obvious to me that he was “strokin” until it got to the point he knew he needed to make a move. He moved to the front at will and no line that CE24 could have driven would have prevented it from happening. I also believe MT78 had a better car as well. The spotlight has intensified on the apparent Toyota dominance. They cannot afford to keep stinking up the show. Initially the media covering NASCAR pushed the “hard work is paying off” story, but many are starting to realize it is something more. NASCAR can’t afford negative media and Toyota doesn’t want their advantage to be snatched away. To me the body/ nose of the Toyota’s have an obvious advantage in that the design (two large pockets either side) likely keeps the front planted/ stable compared to other manufacturers. Engine advantage? I don’t know but if you can drive through the turns with stability you make better straight speed which the Toyota’s obviously have – the proof is there on your TV screens.
    As far as RN31, he gets what he deserves. His knuckleheadedness has kept him from having a HOF career. The list of his egghead move are too numerous to keep track of. Anyone who gloats/
    laughs about running KL42 into the wall as he did couple years back has shown his character. If all drivers raced that way there would be outrage among all fans. To me some of what JG said was indecernable, BUT if he took a dig at RN31 and POed him it’s all good for me and I am. ot a fan of JG. I don’t think RN31 really held up CE24 but he certainly would have given the opportunity. Nor did I hear CE24 claim RN31 did hold him up. In all RN31 got what he deserved – another mediocre season.

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