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