By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
Each week NASCAR Editor David Morgan will break down who’s hot and who’s not after the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race weekend. Today, we break down the Apache Warrior 400 at Dover International Speedway.
Kyle Busch – Since breaking through for his first win of the season at Pocono in late July, Kyle Busch has been on fire, winning four of the last nine races, including two in a row between last week at New Hampshire and Sunday at Dover.
Though Sunday’s win wasn’t as easy as some of his others as he had to run down Chase Elliott from more than four seconds back and then pass him with two laps to go to take over the lead and the win. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Elliott got held up by lapped traffic, allowing Busch to close the gap and make his way past him for the victory.
Along with his fourth win of the season, Busch accumulated additional playoff points and now sits just 18 points behind Martin Truex, Jr. and the points lead after the reset.
“It’s no doubt the moment that you live for,” said Busch. “It’s the moment that all these guys live for and what we with do with this M&M’s Caramel team and this Toyota Camry was not the best there early on, but we made a lot of gains on it and got it where it was really good there at the end and I was making the most out of it there and being able to run the top and get some speed going with some momentum around the top side.
“I can’t say enough about Chase (Elliott). I mean, he’s an awesome competitor and great kid, great friend. I raced with him in late models and coming off of (Turn) 2 there, you know, he could have pulled up and checked up my momentum. I did kind of check up because I wasn’t quite sure, but then he gave me enough room and I put it back down and just kept my momentum up there, got along side of him and get ready for the entry to (Turn) 3.”
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – From the start of the race weekend, Earnhardt was fast right off of the truck, qualifying in seventh place and finishing one of the practice sessions in second. When the green flag flew on Sunday, the speed from earlier in the weekend translated seamlessly into race day as he climbed up to third place by lap 40.
After green flag pit stops near the end of the first stage, Earnhardt would wind up getting trapped a lap down when the caution flew, but was able to take the wave around and restart in 10th place. He would eventually finish the first stage in 12th.
Stage two would see Earnhardt climb back into the top-10 and foreshadow how the race would end for his team as he finished the stage in seventh.
The final stage was more of the same for the No. 88 team as Earnhardt found himself in the top-five, moving as high as second before the final round of green flag pit stops began. When everything cycled through, Earnhardt was back in seventh place, where he would remain for the rest of the day.
The finish was his best at Dover since the fall of 2015 and his first top-10 since Sonoma back in June.
“It feels good,” said Earnhardt. “This team is really a good team and we have just had a lot of odd misfortune and we have ill-prepared ourselves at times. When the car is good, it seems like we have some bad luck. Then there are weekends where we just can’t get the car right. It’s been a pretty down year but hopefully this weekend is the start of some more good runs. I think we will end this thing strong and I am excited.
“We probably showed a little bit more speed at different times during the weekend than where we ended up. I was talking to (Ryan) Blaney last night and he said, ‘man, you guys are so fast.’ And I told him I would just take a top ten after the year that I have had. I know the car was good enough to run in the top five and we showed that at certain points in the race and certain points of the weekend too.”
Jamie McMurray – After getting eliminated at Dover the last two seasons, McMurray can breathe a sigh of relief after scoring enough points to advance to the Round of 12 following a ninth-place finish.
McMurray entered the race weekend with a nine-point advantage over the cut-off, but a 26th place qualifying effort put the Missouri native behind the eight-ball for the 400-mile race as he was the last of the 16 playoff drivers on the starting grid.
Though he wasn’t able to break into the top-10 by the end of the first stage, he finished the second stage in ninth-place and stayed there for the remainder of the race, leaving the Monster Mile in 11th place in points.
“I’m pleased,” said McMurray. “I feel like and I said it on media day that we have run about eighth all year long, so if we just did what we had done all year long that we would be fine. Had a great car today. Got behind in qualifying, but recovered well and we were a little safe on our strategy, but man, had a great car again.
“Charlotte has been great and you just never know at Talladega anybody has a chance to win there. That has been a great track for me, so I look forward to it.”
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. – Before the playoffs even started, many had Stenhouse and his No. 17 team written off as one of the four teams that would be eliminated after Dover, but with a little bit of luck, Stenhouse was able to make the cut by just two points to move onto the next round.
Stenhouse had fallen back to 23rd as the first stage played out, but a caution in the middle of green flag pit stops allowed him to advance all the way up to third place and he was able to hold on after the restart to finish the stage in fourth, gaining him valuable points.
Though he didn’t finish in the top-10 in the second stage or in the final rundown, the points he gained early and his 19th place finish were just enough to move him onto the Round of 12, which could be a positive for Stenhouse as Talladega is one of the races in the next round and he has won two of the three restrictor plate races this season.
“The feeling is lucky really,” said Stenhouse. “We caught the caution there right at the right time with a perfect amount of laps left in the stage to get stage points and that was the turning point of the day. Our Fastenal Ford was definitely not close to what we needed, especially the last two runs. We were close before the last two runs and made some adjustments there and really fell off. All in all, like I said, I feel lucky that we had all the mistakes at Chicago and really not a good car at Chicago, Loudon or Dover but we still made it in. Really it is hats off to the guys for fighting all day and it is nice that the round starts over.
“We have to run better. We have to bring faster race cars to the track because what we are bringing to the track right now is not nearly fast enough. All in all, it is positive momentum that we did make it to the second round.”
Ryan Newman – Newman entered Dover just one point behind the cut-off, but a subpar run at the Monster Mile in which he didn’t accumulate any stage points and only managed a 13th place finish didn’t help matters as he finished the day two points out of 12th and advancing to the next round.
“We just weren’t good enough, as simple as that,” said Newman. “We didn’t have a fast-enough race car, we didn’t have the right strategy. We qualified better, that was a plus, but these first three races were a challenge for us. It seemed like everybody else stepped up their game and we didn’t.
“We just didn’t have what it took. And you can’t run where we ran the last three races and expect to go out and win a championship. So, we’ve got some work to do to build on for next year, and we’ll do that.”
Austin Dillon – Much like his Richard Childress Racing teammate, Dillon came into Dover just outside the cut line as he was tied with Stenhouse for 12th. A bad luck of the draw put Dillon two laps down after the caution for Jeffrey Earnhardt’s spin and he was never able to recover, finishing the day in 16th.
Last year, Dillon was able to advance at Dover, but on Sunday, things went just the opposite for the No. 3 team.
“I put it back on myself in Chicago,” said Dillon. “I got a speeding penalty there where we were going to get stage points and a top 10 run and that just kind of crushed our points situation. Today was more luck than anything when the No. 33 spun out there it put us two laps down, had to take a wave around and we fought out of that hole back on to the lead lap and the No. 17 (Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.) he played the strategy right and got the stage points and we were racing him pretty much the rest of the day.
“We tried some more strategy stuff by staying out there at the end on older tires and we didn’t get the caution. So, congratulations to the NO. 17 team for moving on. We will just keep working hard and see if we can’t get a win by the end of the year and come back stronger next year.”
Kurt Busch – Entering Dover in a must-win position sitting 17 points behind the cut line after two rough weeks to start the playoffs, things didn’t get much better for Busch in Sunday’s 400-miler.
Starting in 13th place, Busch broke into the top-10 within the first handful of laps, but that would be the last time he would see the top-10 for the remainder of race and didn’t finish in the top-10 in either of the first two stages and finished the day back in 20th place, ending his hopes at making a run at a second championship.
“Disappointed in the way that I drove all through these playoff run. I was driving at 101 percent trying to get every ounce of speed out of it. It just never had a flow for three races. We might have finished 10th here today. The wreck last week really put us in a hole. We needed perfect day today and playoff stage points. We just really never did well in Stage 1 and I thought that it might be our Achilles heel. If we add up the numbers (that’s) probably where it was. I can’t fault anybody. We ran hard. We gave it everything we had.
“Winning the Daytona 500, you always see the jinx that happens afterwards. We experienced it. There’s a lot that goes on with it. My car never had the handle in it this year where I was always loose in, tight on exit. Loose in, tight on exit. I don’t know why we had that so bad this year.”
Kasey Kahne – Kahne’s Brickyard 400 win was one of the feel-good stories of the year, but even a crew chief change for the final two races of the Round of 16 in the playoffs wasn’t enough to get Kahne a win on Sunday in a race he had to win to be able to advance to the next round.
Though he started in 21st, Kahne was able to climb into the top-15, but never made it any further, finishing the day in 14th place, ending his playoff run with seven races remaining with Hendrick Motorsports.
“Just track position was one of the biggest challenges for us,” said Kahne. “It was just tough… we didn’t pass really well, but had a pretty decent car, but it was a bit of a struggle to pass guys that were running the same speed, so we just kind of ran in that spot and tried to use some strategy to get up. It seemed to really work, but then on the long end of it, it didn’t work out. Darian (Grubb, crew chief) did a good job. The guys worked hard and that was the best we could do.”
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