Domination, elimination, heartbreak – three words that could be used to sum up Sunday’s Citizen Soldiers 400 at Dover International Speedway. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series headed up north to Delaware for the final race in the first round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. 16 drivers entered Sunday’s event with a shot at the 2016 championship, and as the checkered flag flew, four were eliminated.
Drama began to strike early on in the race for some championship contenders who were in need of solid finishes in order to advance to the next round.
On Lap 34, the caution flag flew as Kevin Harvick’s No.4 car went up in smoke due to a broken track bar. Harvick won last weekend’s race at New Hampshire, so the Bakersfield, CA native wasn’t in any danger of being eliminated. But under that caution flag period, one of Harvick’s championship rivals, Kyle Larson, found some misfortune. Larson’s car came to a stop on track with some sort of battery issue. Once the car got pushed back to pit road, the crew was able to resolve the problem. Larson did fall down a lap however, which ended up proving to be his Achilles heel throughout the event as he was never able to get back on the lead lap. The Elk Grove, CA native ended up being outside the top-12 in points as the checkered flag flew, and failed to advance to the second round of the Chase.
“There wasn’t much we could do,” Larson told the media after the race. “I cut the right front tire down and got in the wall and still had good speed in the race car after that but it just didn’t work out. Our team has come a long way this season from where we started the year. We were pretty awful at the start of the season but then got a win at Michigan to lock ourselves in the Chase. That was good. I know we have the speed to have made it past a couple of rounds but it’s my typical luck I guess, where it just doesn’t work out.”
Larson’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, Jamie McMurray, was also a championship contender headed into Sunday’s race. But much like his teammate, McMurray leaves Dover on the short end of the stick. The Joplin, MO native had been complaining that his engine was laying down throughout a majority of the first part of the race – and on Lap 194, it finally let go. The No.1 Credit One Chevrolet went up in smoke, taking the team’s championship hopes along with it.
“…It vibrated earlier in the race and it went away,” said McMurrary in the garage after the engine failure. “And it’s weird because engine issues usually don’t go away. It felt like it had power and then I don’t know about 40 laps before it finally blew up, it just started vibrating real bad. They (the team) said what broke, but I couldn’t hear them over all the cars on the track. I’m not sure. Very unfortunate. It is just the way it goes.”
Two of the four eliminated drivers knew their championship fates early on in Sunday’s event, while the other two drivers had hopes of advancing all the way up until the checkered flag flew.
Chris Buescher was the “underdog” story of the 2016 Chase field. The 23-year old locked himself into the playoffs with an unexpected win earlier on in the season at Pocono Raceway. Buescher had decent finishes throughout the first two races of the first round, but never found himself in a secure position heading into the third race on Sunday. The Prosper, TX native’s only hope was for something catastrophic to happen to the front-runners at Dover, but unfortunately for him, that didn’t happen. As the checkered flag waved, Buescher crossed the finish line in 23rd, not enough to continue his 2016 championship run.
“Now we go back to racing the same way we did this weekend,” said Buescher post-race. “Nothing really changes. We’ve got the opportunity to test a little bit more and we still have the opportunity to take chances for the rest of the season, but I’m really proud of the guys for all the work this year. To even be in the Chase was a really big deal for Front Row Motorsports and this 34 team. My hat’s off to everybody who has worked so hard this season.”
The 4th and final driver that got eliminated from the Chase on Sunday was sentimental favorite, Tony Stewart. 2016 is Stewart’s last season behind the wheel in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, so many had hoped that he could follow the footsteps of his retirement predecessor, Jeff Gordon, who made it to the final race of the season last year with a shot at the championship. But Stewart and his No.14 team weren’t able to put the puzzle pieces together, and as the checkered flag flew Sunday at Dover, Stewart’s championship hopes did as well.
“I’m pretty excited about our day,” said Stewart, who understandably didn’t spend much time with the media after the race. “We were much better than we were yesterday. Really proud of our team. We kept making it better all day. That is good as we had.”
On the opposite side of the spectrum was Martin Truex Jr., who led the field to both the green flag and to the checkered flag on Sunday. Some may deem Sunday’s victory a “walk in the park” for Truex, but lady-luck was definitely on his side in terms of the bad-luck that struck his biggest competition, Jimmie Johnson. On a late race pit stop, Johnson’s pit crew received a “over the wall too-soon” penalty, which trapped Johnson a lap down. Truex was able to cruise to victory, leading 187 laps en route to his fourth victory of the season.
“We’re not messing around, I guess,” Truex said, post-race. “I don’t know – what else can you say? We’re here to get it done, and, golly I’m telling you just the best bunch of guys you could ever ask for. It’s just amazing to drive their race cars and do what we were able to do. I’m just ecstatic.”
The eleven drivers that are also ecstatic to join Truex in the second round of the Chase include: Austin Dillon, Johnson, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, and Kevin Harvick.
The first race of the second round takes place next Saturday night as NASCAR returns back home to Charlotte Motor Speedway. Bragging rights and championship lives will be on the line, sparking anticipation levels up high for a majority of NASCAR personnel and fans alike.