Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DOVER, DE – Chase Elliott may not be leading the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings as the series heads to Dover International Speedway for Sunday’s Drydene 400 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) but with a victory last week at the Charlotte ROVAL and the most recent win at a Dover Playoff race, he’s got to be feeling confident and optimistic as the series rolls into the nation’s first state.
At the very least, the 23-year old second-generation NASCAR star has his timing down.
Elliott heads into this next three-race round of the Playoffs ranked sixth in the championship standings – and defending winner of two of the next three races – at Dover this week and at Kansas Speedway in two weeks. He won at the other venue, Talladega, Ala., just this May.
In fact, the driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet earned top-five finishes at all three tracks in this season’s first stop at each. He was fifth at Dover, won Talladega and finished fourth at Kansas. He led the most laps (235) and earned the most points (156) of anyone on the grid during that time. And only his teammate Alex Bowman – who finished runner-up in all three races – has a better average finish at the tracks this season.
This week’s Dover mile, in particular, has been a shining star on Elliott’s resume. He has four podium finishes in seven starts – including the win last year, a pair of runner-up finishes and a third place.
As is typical of the ever-humble Elliott, he credits much of his own success at Dover to having the track’s all-time winningest driver Jimmie Johnson as a Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Johnson scored his 11th Dover win two years ago – his last Cup victory.
“We’ve had fast cars there,” Elliott allowed. “To be honest, I think probably the biggest reason we’ve had some good runs at the race track is because of Jimmie’s success over the years. I think he’s been so good and he’s put a really good baseline for us to go there and have a decent place to start for the weekend. I think a lot of [Elliott’s success] is because of that.”
Hendrick Motorsport’s 20 Dover wins is most all-time. However, the biggest contributor to that number, Johnson, is the lone member of the four-car Hendrick team that is not Playoff eligible this year. But that has only motivated the veteran more.
No non-playoff driver has won at Dover during the Playoff portion of the schedule but Johnson may be the first. He is not only eager to make his historic victory tally an even dozen, the seven-time Cup champion would just like to get back in the win column.
Among the Playoff drivers, championship leader Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. each have three Dover wins and Busch leads the field with four runner-up finishes. Elliott, a three-time race winner in 2019, boasts the top Driver Rating (108.3) among the 12 Playoff drivers at Dover. Busch, a four-time winner, is next at 104.6. Kyle Larson, who is looking for his first victory since 2017, has a 100.6 rating and is the only other Playoff driver with a Dover rating above 100.
Busch has the most top-five finishes (12) among the 12 Playoff drivers at Dover. He and Kevin Harvick have the most top 10s (18) as well.
Truex – a two-time winner in the opening three Playoff races – has the most impressive win tally of late. He’s won two of the last six Dover races, including this May. And his six wins in 2019 is a series best.
MONSTER MILE WELCOMES XFINITY
Expect this week’s Use Your Melon Driver Sober 200 (Saturday at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Dover International Speedway to be a highly pivotal moment in the 2019 NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs as it’s the final race in the Round of 12 to settle which eight drivers move onward to settle the season championship.
Points leader Christopher Bell is the only fulltime Xfinity Series driver to earn a Playoff win so far (at Richmond, Va. two weeks ago), and that gives him an automatic ticket to the next round of the Playoffs. The bad news for his competition is that Bell has also won the last two races at Dover, Del. He beat fellow championship contenders Justin Allgaier in May and Cole Custer in this race last October.
Going into Saturday’s opening round cutoff race, Bell, Custer, Austin Cindric, Allgaier, Chase Briscoe, Noah Gragson and Michael Annett are ranked among the Top-8 in the standings. Annett holds an 11-point edge over ninth place John Hunter Nemechek and 10th place Brandon Jones. Only the Top-8 ranked drivers following Saturday’s race remain championship eligible in the next three-race Playoff round at tracks in Kansas, Texas and ISM Raceway in Phoenix.
Both drivers closest to the cutoff line – Nemechek and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Brandon Jones – have solid records at Dover. Nemechek has a pair of top-10 finishes in three starts and is coming off a career best eighth place in May. Jones, 22, has seven starts – starting on pole in May, 2018 and earning three top-10s. His best work is a sixth place last year.
Annett has only a pair of top-10 finishes in 15 Dover starts. His best is a third-place run in 2012. The JR Motorsports veteran was 10th at the track in May.
Among current drivers, only the two-time defending winner Bell and Allgaier (2018) have hoisted trophies at Dover. The veteran Allgaier has the most experience at the one-mile, high-banked concrete venue, nicknamed “The Monster Mile” for its tough reputation. He has that victory last year, seven top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 17 starts. The JR Motorsports driver is looking for his first win, however, since last season when he won five races. He is one of two drivers ranked among the Playoff Top-8 – also rookie Noah Gragson – without a victory this season.
Bell, Custer and regular season champ Tyler Reddick – who announced this week he will join Bell in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series fulltime in 2020 – have accounted for 18 wins through the first 28 races.