NASCAR returned to Dover Oct. 7 for the fourth race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs and first race of the Round of 12. Last week, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson was eliminated by tiebreaker after a last-lap crash with Martin Truex Jr. while battling for the win at the new oval in Charlotte. That opened the door for one of NASCAR’s young guns, Ryan Blaney, to swoop in and grab the victory. That set the stage this week for another youngster, Chase Elliott, who took the checkered flag to win the Gander Outdoors 400. Elliot used a late-race pit strategy to stay out on older tires when the leaders pitted, and that proved to be the move of the race, propelling him to Victory Lane in an overtime green-white-checkered finish. It also secured him a spot in the Round of 8.
Friday qualifying had a familiar result, with the Big 3 taking the top 3 spots for the start of the race – Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. Kyle Larson was fastest in the weekend’s last practice session with a 10-lap average of 155 mph, but that speed would not translate to Sunday’s race. He ended up battling just to stay on the lead lap and finished 12th.
Prior to the race, Milton native, Cape graduate, and rising country music star Jimmie Allen performed a free concert at the AAA Stage at Victory Plaza.
Kyle Busch took the green flag to start the race and led the first 15 laps before yielding the lead to Kevin Harvick. The rest of the first 320 laps looked like Harvick was cruising to another victory, with leads over second place often ranging from 2 to 5 seconds. A late-race pit stop would change the course of the last 80 laps and then overtime. After pitting on Lap 320, Harvick had to come down pit road again for a second green flag stop, basically ending his chances for the win. A lug nut appeared to have knocked off a valve stem on the left rear tire. Harvick would lose a lap and battle his way back to as high as fifth on lap 389, but even with late-race cautions, he was relegated to a sixth-place finish.
Truex, a New Jersey native, considers Dover his home track and usually does well at the Monster Mile. But this time around, he complained he couldn’t get the car turning well through the center on corners. He got as high as third place before being caught up in a late-race wreck. He finished 15th.
On Lap 120, Stage 1 was won by Harvick, who collected valuable points for advancing through the playoffs. Kyle Busch was third, with race-winner Elliott in fifth and Truex lurking back in 10th. Joey Logano gained the lead on pit road and Elliott restarted at the end of field due to an uncontrolled tire on pit road. Harvick quickly retook the lead after the restart and led the rest of Stage 2 except during green flag stops. On Lap 240, Stage 2 ended with Harvick winning once again and playoff contender Alex Bowman getting the free pass to get back on the lead lap. Truex finished Stage 2 in third, with Kyle Busch in seventh and Elliott in ninth.
The final-stage restart saw six Fords leading the field. Larson received a penalty for speeding on pit road, putting him in 17th place and one lap down. By Lap 259, Harvick had a 1.3-second lead over Aric Almirola and that lead grew by Lap 309 to 4.6 seconds over then-second-place Clint Bowyer, also a Harvick teammate. Elliott recovered to eighth after the penalty from the end of Stage 1.
On Lap 319, green flag pit stops began when Ryan Blaney came to pit road. After Harvick’s misfortune with the lug nut and valve stem, Almirola emerged with the lead. A caution on Lap 340 put Harvick back on the lead lap in 14th after receiving the free pass. With 20 wave-around cars out of his way, the crowd was left wondering if there was time for Harvick to make a late charge to the front. Truex was too fast on pit road and had to fall to the end of the field for the restart. Brad Keselowski took two tires and led the field to the green on the restart. On Lap 349, Almirola regained the lead and appeared poised to win until Bowyer had a mechanical or tire issue that caused him to slam the wall hard. Harvick worked his way up to fifth when the caution flew.
After the Lap 397 restart, Almirola was aggressive and charged hard down the backstretch, but he got loose and smacked the wall, colliding with Keselowski, ending both of their chances for a win. Bowman, Truex and Blaney also were damaged. The debris led to about a five-minute red flag, setting the stage for an overtime restart with Elliott and Hamlin on the front row. Elliott jumped to the lead on the outside and didn’t look back, taking his second checkered flag this season and advancing to the Round of 8. Hamlin, Logano, Jones and Kurt Busch rounded out the Top 5.
There were 15 lead changes among eight drivers.
NASCAR will return to Dover in the spring May 3-5, 2019. Fans can purchase tickets at 1-800-441-RACE (7223) or online at DoverSpeedway.com.