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NASCAR At Dover 2012: Brad Keselowski Steals Fuel Mileage Race For Second Chase Win

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Matt Kenseth falls to last in Chase standings

Matt Kenseth's final NASCAR Chase with Roush Fenway Racing hasn't gone according to plan -- to say the least.

At a track where the Roush cars are traditionally strong, Kenseth struggled. Throughout the day he fought the handling of his No. 17 Ford. On Lap 309 he hit the outside wall in Turn 2. Moments after a restart on Lap 317, with his car still damaged, he wrecked in Turn 4.

The resulting 35th-place finish dropped Kenseth to 12th in the Chase standings, 72 points behind Keselowski and, for practical purposes, out of contention for the championship.

"In two out of three Chase races something either fell off or broke, so obviously that's not good," said Kenseth, who will drive the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing next year. "Our performance hasn't been very good either, so I don't know.

"Today was a struggle. This is probably the worst we've run here for as long as I can remember. We just really missed it. From the first lap on the track to the last lap on the track we were pretty much junk. Everybody is trying hard, but we just missed it."

Here are the updated NASCAR standings after Dover:

  1. Brad Keselowski
  2. Jimmie Johnson -5
  3. Denny Hamlin -16
  4. Clint Bowyer -25
  5. Tony Stewart -32
  6. Kasey Kahne -32
  7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -39
  8. Martin Truex Jr. -42
  9. Kevin Harvick -46
  10. Jeff Gordon -48
  11. Greg Biffle -51
  12. Matt Kenseth -72
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Why is fourth place 'tough' for Jimmie Johnson?

When crew chief Chad Knaus told Jimmie Johnson that he'd have to squeeze 89 laps out of his final tank of fuel, Johnson wasn't happy -- because he knew the implications.

With a car capable of winning, Johnson instead had to back down his lap times drastically to save enough fuel to get to the end of Sunday's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway.

Ultimately, Johnson saved enough gas to finish fourth, a better result than that achieved by Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin, who had to pit late for fuel and came home seventh and eighth, respectively. But it was hardly a satisfying conclusion for Johnson, who surrendered the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series lead to race winner (and master fuel conservationist) Brad Keselowski.

"For starters, we're not very good at fuel-mileage races," Johnson said frankly. "So, when I heard that, I'm like, 'Man, we're in big trouble.' And (Knaus) asked me to start saving fuel. And I doubled the distance out of the gate just to make sure that I did enough to get us to the end. So, it's tough; it really is.

"But we have a handful of races that come down to it each year and we've worked to get better at it. And this is like the second of 15 or something that we've attempted to finish in a low-fuel situation and got it done. So I'm improving and we're improving. I wish we could have raced for it. We finally got control of the race, late, but it just didn't unfold like a normal race here."

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Standings: Chase race down to three drivers?

After three races, who are the legitimate contenders for NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup?

Looking at the standings, it appears to be a three-man battle between points leader Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson (five points back) and Denny Hamlin (16 points behind).

After that, fourth-place Clint Bowyer trails by a healthy 25-point margin and has never won on a 1.5-mile track – which are four of the final seven races. So can Bowyer really out-run Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin? Doubtful.

Next is Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne, who are tied for fifth (32 points back). Stewart isn't running well, but Kahne could still potentially get back in the mix if the three main contenders wreck at Talladega or something along those lines.

Everyone else – including seventh-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. – is out of it. Sure, those drivers might say publicly they still have a shot, but it would take a miracle.

Here are the NASCAR standings after Sunday's race at Dover International Speedway:

  1. Brad Keselowski
  2. Jimmie Johnson -5
  3. Denny Hamlin -16
  4. Clint Bowyer -25
  5. Tony Stewart -32
  6. Kasey Kahne -32
  7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -39
  8. Martin Truex Jr. -42
  9. Kevin Harvick -46
  10. Jeff Gordon -48
  11. Greg Biffle -51
  12. Matt Kenseth -72
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Dover setback cripples Kasey Kahne's title chances

After spending much of Sunday's NASCAR race at Dover one lap down, Kasey Kahne had returned to the lead lap in hopes of securing a top-five finish and staying in Chase contention with a good result.

Instead, a problem with his car and an ensuing mistake by his pit crew cost him dearly, and he finished a disappointing 15th.

Late in the race, Kahne had to pit with what he thought was a loose wheel. But it turned out not to be the case.

"We don't know why I had to pit the first time, but the car just started shaking really bad," Kahne said afterward. "I got nervous because it was getting worse and worse. Right before it did that we were fast, we finally got our laps back that we lost early and we were coming on. I could see I was eating (Brad) Keselowski up pretty good and had plenty of fuel."

While Kahne said he was "definitely upset" about the turn of events, he also accepted that "things happen" sometimes that are out of the team's control. Plus, it still put the No. 5 team in decent position on fuel.

But a crew member left a lug nut off the right-front tire, a miscue which required yet another trip back down pit road. It was a mistake that "shouldn't happen," Kahne said, and it was a costly error.

"We were sitting really good because we had just pitted and topped off (on fuel)," he said. "It's too bad, whatever it was. I don't know. We will figure it out and hopefully we don't have it happen again."

For Kahne, Sunday's result was crippling.

He entered the weekend in the thick of title contention – he was just 15 points out of the lead thanks to finishes of third and fifth in the opening two Chase races – and assuming he would have finished no worse than fourth, Kahne lost a minimum of 11 points and now finds himself 32 points behind Keselowski.

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Oh-so-close for Denny Hamlin at Dover

Before he climbed from his car, Denny Hamlin sat parked in front of his No. 11 team's hauler and mouthed two words: "Damn it."

What was setting up to be one of the greatest drives of Hamlin's NASCAR career turned out to be all for naught. Hamlin had seemingly conquered his weakest track – Dover International Speedway – on the day when he needed to the most, as evidenced by him leading three different times for 39 laps and running second for much of the day.

In the end, though, the race became a fuel mileage game. Hamlin didn't have enough gas to make it – his team wasn't even close – and he pitted late, settling for an eight-place result instead of a sure top-three finish.

"It's so frustrating," he said afterward. "It's like all the hard work you do doesn't pay off."

When Hamlin got out of the car, he stood off to the side and stared at his No. 11 machine for nearly five minutes. Eventually, crew chief Darian Grubb arrived and the two had a brief discussion about what had happened. Grubb patted Hamlin on the back, and driver and crew chief looked at the car in silence.

The Toyota Racing Development motors – which are used by Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing team – don't produce very good fuel mileage when optimized for horsepower. It's a conscious decision made by the team to choose speed over gas mileage, but it can hurt on days like Sunday.

"I cannot control all this fuel mileage shit," Hamlin said. "I just gotta drive the race car as fast as I can drive it for 400 laps, and wherever I am on the (scoring) pylon is indicative of how I did, how our fuel mileage is, how the crew was and how fast the car is. Today, we got knocked down because fuel mileage is our weak spot."

Hamlin shrugged off his deficit to Sprint Cup Series points leader Brad Keselowski – he's third in the standings, down by 16 points with seven races left – and said his competitors "are not going to beat us on the track."

"I mean, that's plain and simple," Hamlin said. "We're just too fast right now. I feel like everything is going well. It's just these strategy games and the way these cautions are falling, it's ill-timed. These cautions fly when some people can and some people can't make it. It's messing everything up."

On the positive side, Hamlin said he wasn't overly discouraged because "we ran our ass off today." And if someone had offered an eighth-place finish at his worst track before the Chase, he probably would have taken it.

But knowing how close he came to something much better was difficult to accept.

"I drove as hard as I could for 400 laps, and I look up and it's like, 'Why are we eighth?'" he said. "That part of it is frustrating."

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Results: Brad Keselowski saves fuel for Dover win

With a masterful job of saving fuel over a closing 79-lap green-flag run, Brad Keselowski regained the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup lead with a strategic win in Sunday's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway.

Keselowski inherited the race lead when Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin pitted for fuel from the top two positions late in the race. Keselowski beat hard-charging Jeff Gordon to the finish line by 1.078 seconds to win his series-best fifth race of the season, his second in the Chase, his first at Dover and the ninth of his career.

Mark Martin rallied from a lap down to run third, followed by Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards. Johnson, who entered the race with a one-point edge over Keselowski in the Cup standings, left with a five-point deficit to his Dodge rival.

What Johnson couldn't accomplish on the race track, he did on pit road. With a 12.5-second stop for fuel and tires under caution for Matt Kenseth's Lap 308 brush with the Turn 2 wall, Johnson beat Busch, whose stop took a second longer, out of the pits for a restart on Lap 316.

Kenseth's crash in Turn 4 a lap later necessitated the fifth caution of the race, after which Johnson held the top spot from a restart on Lap 322 and kept Busch on his rear bumper until Lap 354. After a discussion about possibly sacrificing track position and saving fuel for the end of the race, Johnson gave way to Busch on the backstretch.

Shortly thereafter, Johnson, in fuel-saving mode, surrendered the second position to Hamlin, and all three of the top cars tried to compensate for shortfalls on fuel. Busch came to the pits for a splash of gas on Lap 390, and Hamlin followed on Lap 391. Busch and Hamlin finished seventh and eighth, respectively.

Here are the full results from today's NASCAR race at Dover International Speedway:

  1. Brad Keselowski
  2. Jeff Gordon
  3. Mark Martin
  4. Jimmie Johnson
  5. Carl Edwards
  6. Martin Truex Jr.
  7. Kyle Busch
  8. Denny Hamlin
  9. Clint Bowyer
  10. Joey Logano
  11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  12. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
  13. Kevin Harvick
  14. Bobby Labonte
  15. Kasey Kahne
  16. Greg Biffle
  17. Regan Smith
  18. Marcos Ambrose
  19. Aric Almirola
  20. Tony Stewart
  21. Ryan Newman
  22. Paul Menard
  23. Kurt Busch
  24. Jamie McMurray
  25. Sam Hornish Jr.
  26. Juan Pablo Montoya
  27. Jeff Burton
  28. Danica Patrick
  29. Travis Kvapil
  30. David Ragan
  31. Casey Mears
  32. David Gilliland
  33. T.J. Bell
  34. JJ Yeley
  35. Matt Kenseth
  36. Landon Cassill
  37. Josh Wise
  38. Michael McDowell
  39. Joe Nemechek
  40. Scott Speed
  41. Dave Blaney
  42. Scott Riggs
  43. Reed Sorenson
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Dover preview: Favorites, storylines and more

Here are some storylines to follow, notes and drivers to watch for in today's NASCAR race at Dover International Speedway:

Storylines

Can Hamlin Tame The Monster?

Denny Hamlin doesn't like Dover, and Dover doesn't agree with Denny Hamlin. His angst with the "Monster Mile" is understandable considering his average finish is 20. 5 and he's finished in the top 10 as many times (four) as he's finished 36th or worse.

But a surprising pole-winning run Saturday gave some much-needed hope to the No. 11 team that it can conquer the monster. And although a win would be fantastic, realistically Hamlin doesn't need a win to keep his championship hopes alive. Today, all he needs to do is post a respectable finish – ideally somewhere in the top 10 – and assuming Jimmie Johnson doesn't end up in Victory Lane, Hamlin will be in excellent position to win his first series title.

Tony Stewart's Missing Dover Mojo

There was a time when Tony Stewart excelled at Dover – sweeping both races in 2000 and at one point finishing in the top 10 in 10 of 11 races. But like Denny Hamlin, the Monster Mile has become a house of horrors for Stewart. In his last four starts, the owner/driver has crossed the line 21st, 29th, 25th and 25th, and in none of those races has he finished on the lead lap.

And just as Hamlin needs to avoid stumbling this afternoon, Stewart needs to do the same and find a way to recapture some of his prior Dover magic and leave with a decent result.

Separation Sunday

It's hard to make any definitive statements just two races into the Chase, as a lot can happen between now and Homestead. That said, I think everyone can agree Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski have established themselves as the title favorites. Right behind them and very much lurking no more than 15 points back are ony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer.

But after that there is a bit more separation, as seventh-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. already finds himself 26 points out of first. And for these drivers seventh on back, Dover looms large if they want to be to climb back into contention.

The above is especially true for Greg Biffle, who scored the most points during the regular season, but has started the Chase by finishing 13th and 18th and desperately needs a good run on a track where he has won twice. The same rings true for Kevin Harvick, who thus far has been virtually nonexistent, but did finish runner-up here in the spring.

Worth Noting

• One of the keys to Dover is qualifying well, so much so that in 14 of the last 19 races the eventual winner has started eighth or better.

• Martin Truex Jr. has just one Sprint Cup Series victory to his name. However, that lone victory came at Dover in 2007 and starting third today, it's easy to think he could be in contention for win No. 2.

• In preparation for a full slate of races next year, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will make his third Cup start today. The defending Nationwide Series champion will line up 17th on the grid.

Favorites

1. Jimmie Johnson

No different than Hamlin a week ago at Loudon, Jimmie Johnson is head-and-shoulders above the rest. This is based on Johnson having won four of the past seven Dover events and in those seven races, having led no less than 157 laps. Long story short: He's really, really good at Dover.

2. Jeff Gordon

If someone is to derail the Jimmie Johnson Express it might just be his teammate, Jeff Gordon. Not only did Gordon pace Friday's second practice, but in the spring race he had one of the fastest cars leading 60 laps and at times pulling away from the 48 before an untimely caution ruined his day.

3. Kyle Busch

An engine failure doomed Kyle Busch here in the spring, but before that he had finished no worse than sixth in his previous four Dover starts. And it's important to know that it was Busch and not Johnson or Gordon, who in final practice had the fastest 10 consecutive lap average.

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Kahne's car sputters when he needs it the most

Kasey Kahne in the best position of anyone to challenge Joey Logano for Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series win at Dover on the final restart.

Kahne lined up second with 18 laps to go, and Logano – who had dominated the race – was right next to him. Could Kahne somehow get his No. 38 Turner Motorsports car in front of Logano's No. 18?

We'll never know, because Kahne said his engine somehow shut off when he hit the throttle.

"I took off right with Logano and felt really good, and then the whole thing just shut off," Kahne said. "So I'm just sitting there wide open, and the engine wasn't running. So then I'm waiting and I'm like pumping the throttle, and finally it decided to go again."

Kahne said the motor then went at 50 percent power down the frontstretch – while his competitors went all over the place to dodge the car – and suddenly "launched" when he got to Turn 1. His temperature gauge shot up from 200 to 300 degrees in the course of the next 10 laps, so he could only assume something was wrong with the engine.

The team initially thought he had a fuel pickup problem because the car had done the same thing earlier in the race. It shut off on pit road in the first sign of trouble, so fuel pickup was the best guess at the time.

"It stalled and it was just dead," he said. "You're trying to figure out what to do, and finally it just refires again and everything is fine."

Kahne fell back to 11th when the second incident happened, but he rallied to finish eighth.

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Nationwide: Logano dominates Dover...again

The steep concrete banks of Dover aside, Saturday's OneMain Financial 200 was hardly a cliffhanger, as Joey Logano dominated the proceedings from start to finish in winning his seventh NASCAR Nationwide Series race of the season.

Momentarily, at least, a caution on Lap 177 for Tim Andrews' blown engine injected a modicum of suspense, but Logano reasserted his superiority after a restart on Lap 182 and pulled away for his second victory at the Monster Mile and the 16th of his career.

Logano, who led 184 of 200 laps, crossed the finish line .876 seconds ahead of runner-up Paul Menard. Michael Annett ran third, and Elliott Sadler increased his series lead to nine points over defending champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who finished ninth. Kyle Busch completed the top five.

By the time NASCAR called a planned competition caution on Lap 46, Logano had opened a lead of roughly three seconds. Kasey Kahne took over the top spot with a two-tire call under the yellow, but Logano regained the lead moments after a restart on Lap 51.

The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota held the point until the second caution of the afternoon -- resulting from oil on the track from Jeremy Clements' car--slowed the field on Lap 116. The brief interruption, however, didn't slow Logano, who took off again from a restart on Lap 124 and built a lead of 1.5 seconds over Justin Allgaier.

Here are the full NASCAR Nationwide Series results from today's race at Dover:

  1. Joey Logano
  2. Paul Menard
  3. Michael Annett
  4. Elliott Sadler
  5. Kyle Busch
  6. Cole Whitt
  7. Brian Scott
  8. Kasey Kahne
  9. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
  10. Austin Dillon
  11. Mike Bliss
  12. Darrell Wallace Jr.
  13. Ryan Blaney
  14. Ryan Truex
  15. Jeff Green
  16. Danica Patrick
  17. Joe Nemechek
  18. Sam Hornish Jr.
  19. Alex Bowman
  20. Jason Bowles
  21. Mike Wallace
  22. Blake Koch
  23. JJ Yeley
  24. Timmy Hill
  25. Jamie Dick
  26. Eric McClure
  27. Jeremy Clements
  28. Brad Teague
  29. Tim Andrews
  30. Justin Allgaier
  31. Erik Darnell
  32. Justin Jennings
  33. Tony Raines
  34. Kevin Lepage
  35. Danny Efland
  36. Scott Riggs
  37. Carl Long
  38. Chase Miller
  39. Josh Wise
  40. Michael McDowell
  41. T.J. Bell
  42. Kelly Bires
  43. Charles Lewandoski
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. could be in trouble at Dover

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his fans could be in for a long day on Sunday.

Earnhardt Jr. is struggling at Dover International Speedway this weekend, and the driver qualified a disappointing 25th on Saturday – the worst starting position for any Chase driver.

Already seventh in the point standings and needing a boost after two average races to start the Chase, this weekend isn't what Earnhardt Jr. was hoping for so far.

"We didn't have a good car in practice and we didn't find any good speed or any good balance, so it's going to be a tough day, I think," he said. "Going to be a tough race."

Asked if he was in salvage mode – perhaps a top-15 finish to limit the damage in the points – Earnhardt Jr. shrugged.

"We're just going to have to work hard and see what happens," he said. "Just have to see what we can do. I don't know. The car hasn't been very good, so I don't know what to expect."

Earnhardt Jr. said his car was plagued by "a lot of different problems." He expected to have a shot at a top-five finish or even a win after finishing fourth in the June race at Dover, but now that seems like a longshot.

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Starting lineup: Surprising driver grabs pole

Denny Hamlin's sports psychologist told him to fall in love with Dover International Speedway, which is easily Hamlin's weakest track in the Chase.

The Monster has been tough for Hamlin to like based on his past results, but Saturday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying session was like a Cupid arrow to Hamlin's heart.

Hamlin won the pole position for Sunday's AAA 400, the third race of NASCAR's Chase and perhaps the most important one of the season for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver.

"It definitely was exciting to get the pole here for us," Hamlin said. "Darian (Grubb, crew chief) is working up some magic. Our qualifying is definitely better this year. Starting from the pole will obviously be a huge advantage for us on Sunday."

The pole was Hamlin's third of the season – tying his career high (2006). He also had the pole at Indianapolis and Fontana earlier this year. The driver said the pole was good for him both mentally and performance-wise, saying it was a 50/50 split.

One of the keys will be the No. 1 pit stall at Dover, which is very important in gaining positions on pit road.

"Track position is second to none here, and we're going to need that for tuning our car," Hamlin said. "We know what we've got now. Now we've just got to execute and make sure we have a flawless day on Sunday."

Behind Hamlin are two more Toyotas – Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr., who are both from Michael Waltrip Racing.

"We just messed up in (Turns) 3 and 4 a little bit," Truex Jr. said. "We should have had the pole there. That's my bad."

Heavy favorite Jimmie Johnson qualified 11th, and Brad Keselowski (second in points) was 10th. All of the Chase drivers are in the top 15 except for Tony Stewart (24th) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (25th).

David Stremme, Mike Bliss, Jason Leffler, Cole Whitt and Kelly Bires failed to qualify for the event.

Here's the starting lineup for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Dover International Speedway (Chase drivers in BOLD):

  1. Denny Hamlin
  2. Clint Bowyer
  3. Martin Truex Jr.
  4. Sam Hornish Jr.
  5. Kyle Busch
  6. Greg Biffle
  7. Jeff Gordon
  8. Ryan Newman
  9. Kasey Kahne
  10. Brad Keselowski
  11. Jimmie Johnson
  12. Matt Kenseth
  13. Kevin Harvick
  14. Joey Logano
  15. Carl Edwards
  16. Bobby Labonte
  17. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
  18. Regan Smith
  19. Paul Menard
  20. Jamie McMurray
  21. Aric Almirola
  22. Landon Cassill
  23. Josh Wise
  24. Tony Stewart
  25. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  26. Mark Martin
  27. Marcos Ambrose
  28. Kurt Busch
  29. Reed Sorenson
  30. Casey Mears
  31. David Ragan
  32. Michael McDowell
  33. Travis Kvapil
  34. Scott Speed
  35. Juan Pablo Montoya
  36. Scott Riggs
  37. Joe Nemechek
  38. Danica Patrick
  39. Jeff Burton
  40. JJ Yeley
  41. T.J. Bell
  42. David Gilliland
  43. Dave Blaney
DNQ: David Stremme, Mike Bliss, Jason Leffler, Cole Whitt, Kelly Bires.
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Could Dover crash help Tony Stewart in Chase?

Though the first 26 races of the NASCAR season seem to be all about making the Chase, they're also about preparing for the 10 races in the championship itself – particularly at the eight Chase tracks which have return visits.

So what happens when a Chase driver crashes in one of those races? In June, the Dover race was only nine laps old when this went down:

As you can see, defending NASCAR champion Tony Stewart caught a piece of the wreck and sustained damage to his No. 14 car.

It could have been harmful to Stewart's chances of a repeat if his crew hadn't been able to fix the car and get him back out onto the track. After all, Stewart needed to collect information from the first Dover race to use for this weekend.

"If you miss the race in the spring and get knocked out early and you don't get to run the rest of the race, it's definitely an impact, for sure," Stewart said Friday.

Fortunately for Stewart, he's not in that situation. His car was repaired so well that he was able to pass cars and run competitive lap times once he returned to the track, even though he was 69 laps down.

"There is something you can take from that at least, even though you are not on the lead lap," he said. "At least we were learning as the race went on, even though we weren't in contention for anything. It definitely helps when you come back here."

So is it possible that crashing early at Dover could actually have helped Stewart's team gain some valuable information for Sunday's race? According to Stewart, there could be a positive in what was a very bad day.

"We learned quite a bit," he said. "We got to make quite a bit of changes every caution. We really weren't racing for position, so every time the caution would come out, we would come in and change something."

As for this weekend, Stewart said his team has made significant gains to the point where his car is "the best we have been here in a long time."

"I'm pretty happy with the way we are starting here," he said. "We are still not as fast as we need to be, but at least we are knocking a lot of that deficit away."

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Danica: Sometimes, you gotta fake it to be happy

In her first full season in NASCAR, it would be fair to say Danica Patrick has had a trying year.

In 27 starts in the Nationwide Series, the former IndyCar driver has just two finishes inside the top 10. The results haven't been much better in the Sprint Cup Series, where Patrick's best result is 25th in six starts.

So how does she deal with what has been a challenging season? One way Patrick copes is by "faking it until you believe it."

"It's easy to get down," Patrick said Friday at Dover International Speedway. "It's easy to not be happy or excited in the monotony of the same thing every weekend, and if things don't go well, being upset and letting that get to you.

"I encourage everyone to try it. If you just smile and are happy and joke, even if you are out of control and not even being honest about how excited you are about something, eventually at some point that day you will be happy."

However, Patrick readily admits forcing herself to smile and be happy isn't as easy as she makes it out to be.

"I can't say I'm completely successful," Patrick said. "It's probably how I feel about qualifying actually. There are plenty of times I've said, 'I hate qualifying,' but I know that's not a positive thing. I know that doesn't help me in qualifying and I need to learn to like it. I need to find the good in it and the positive attitude will translate into better results, I think."

That aura of positivity will be sorely tested this weekend. In two Nationwide starts at Dover, Patrick has struggled mightily, having finished 30th and a crash-induced 35th-place finish this past June.

What Patrick is hoping for is to build off her recent performance at Bristol – a concrete track similar to Dover – and where she finished ninth in the Nationwide event and was running on the lead lap in the Cup race until a late wreck ended her night last month.

"Maybe it will; I don't know," Patrick said when asked if there would be any carryover from one track to the other. "I might be wrong. There's going to be definitely a lot of moving around. ... I will just try to do my best to be smart about staying out there to get all the laps so I'm more prepared for next year."

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Jimmie Johnson explains his Dover secret

As the NASCAR circuit prepares for its annual fall stop at Dover International Speedway, there is one guy everyone in the Sprint Cup Series garage recognizes as the favorite: Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson has a good reason for that reputation. He's won four of the past seven Dover events, and his seven victories overall has him tied with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for most-ever on the one-mile oval.

When asked Friday about what makes him formidable at Dover, Johnson had an interesting answer as to why he likes the high-banked track nicknamed the "Monster Mile."

"Out of all the oval tracks we race on, this one is most similar to my off-road background," Johnson said. "The drop-off into the corner, the way the rubber lays down and you have to select a different line through the turn reminds me of dirt racing. And then you have to climb back up that hill and jump back onto the straightaway and then go do it again and again and again."

When asked his feelings about others putting the bullseye on his back, Johnson acknowledged "we all look at other drivers and where they excel and you know that you're going to have to deal with them" – seemingly relishing his role as the man to beat.

This marks the second straight race where a driver enters the weekend as the heavy favorite. Last week at New Hampshire, it was Denny Hamlin who everyone pegged as the driver to beat. And despite a setback in qualifying, Hamlin fulfilled those expectations, leading a race-high 193 laps and cruising to his fifth win of the year.

But just because a driver is historically great at a particular track – like Hamlin at New Hampshire or Johnson at Dover – it doesn't guarantee he will dominate each and every time out. According to Johnson, it's pretty easy to determine whether a driver will be stout.

"Last week was a good example, as we knew going in based off of the spring race that Denny was going to be the car to beat and they did that," Johnson said. "We all look through stats, but I'm not sure a long history plays into things – but certainly a spring race is one you pay attention to."

Using Johnson's barometer, then the field is going to be in trouble Sunday.

In June, the 48 team decimated the competition with Johnson leading 289 of a possible 400 laps and winning by a healthy 2.5 seconds over Kevin Harvick. Even more ominous is the fact Johnson has led no less than 157 laps in his previous seven Dover starts. These numbers had Johnson stating the obvious.

"We're definitely excited to be here at this race track," he said. "The stats are very good for myself and this team. We're very glad to be here."

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Kurt Busch and Zen masters: Sheen, LeBron, Harper

Kurt Busch will replace Regan Smith in Furniture Row Racing's No. 78 car beginning at Charlotte, but don't call it a "lateral move" from his current team at Phoenix Racing.

"That's a slap in the face to (Furniture Row Racing owner) Barney Visser, because he has put together a program that...is just levels above where James Finch is," Busch said. "When you say it's a lateral move, I don't like that so much. ... If you have a hard card, you'd know the differences in the team."

Busch announced a move to the Denver-based team earlier this week, and he called it a "diamond in the rough." The driver said Furniture Row is "undiscovered" and has not reached its full potential. Smith, the team's current driver, is 23rd in the standings after winning the Southern 500 last season.

Furniture Row has a close alliance with Richard Childress Racing, and Childress himself told Busch the 78 would virtually be the team's fourth car next season. Childress and Busch tried to put together a deal for the driver to join RCR, but the funding didn't come together.

In general, Busch joked he had the "wrong approach" to start out the season with Phoenix Racing because he was following "my Zen master, Charlie Sheen."

"That wasn't going very well," Busch said. "So I had to look around, and then I followed a fellow Top 10 Most Hated Athlete guy, LeBron James. And you know, he brought his talents down to Miami and won a championship down there, so I'm going to use that motivation. I'm going to take my talents to Denver and bring the championship out there, alright?

"Then I decided I didn't need Charlie Sheen, so I'm going to look a new Zen master. I found him: It's Bryce Harper, 19-year-old phenom out of Vegas. ... He's so wise. He told the media, 'No more clown questions. I'm not going to answer any clown questions.' So I'm really looking up to a 19-year-old Bryce Harper to help me through all this."

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Dover preview: Jimmie Johnson poised to kick butt

Jimmie Johnson hasn't called his shot, but the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champ has reason for hope at one of his best tracks this weekend.

Johnson, the series points leader, leads the list of favorites at Dover International Speedway in Sunday's AAA 400 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN), round 3 in the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason.

The Monster Mile's punishing nature has so far spared Johnson, who is tied with NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Bobby Allison atop the track's all-time win list with seven Dover victories. The most recent of those Dover wins came in June, when Johnson led 289 of 400 laps to pad his series-best driver rating at the Delaware track.

"So far, it's been a great track for us," said Johnson, who's won four of the last seven events on the concrete speedway. ". . . If we can run up front and control the race and control who we're racing around, hopefully we can distance ourselves."

Johnson grabbed the series points lead on the consistent strength of two straight runner-up finishes to open the Chase. He currently heads Brad Keselowski, the round 1 winner at Chicago, by one point and Denny Hamlin, the round 2 winner in New Hampshire, by seven.

Hamlin's triumph last weekend resonated because of his spirited drive from 32nd position to a dominant victory, just seven days after boldly predicting a win through his Twitter account. The confidence Hamlin had at New Hampshire may not be so strong at Dover, where he has just two top-five finishes in 13 career efforts there, including a nondescript 18th-place finish in June.

"I think the concrete surface itself just throws me for a loop and I don't have a good feel," Hamlin said. "I don't know. We got better at Bristol (also concrete), so hopefully what we learned there will transfer over to Dover."

Though no driver has been mathematically eliminated from championship contention, Jeff Gordon -- currently in last place in the 12-driver postseason field -- suggests he needs to convert a Hail Mary pass, starting this weekend. Gordon finished third behind Hamlin and teammate Johnson at New Hampshire, but still sits 45 points off the top.

"It's still going to take a miracle for us to win the championship," Gordon said after last Sunday's finish. "I mean, you've got guys like Jimmie, Keselowski and Hamlin; I mean, these are guys that have been strong all year. You know, Jimmie's won five championships. These guys are not going to make huge mistakes. But we have to go and race every race. There's a lot of racing and a lot of different tracks that a lot can happen at."

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