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Previewing the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Gander Outdoors 400 at Dover

Kyle Larson was fastest in both practice sessions at Dover International Speedway. Can he put it all together for win No. 1 of 2018? Photo: Austin McFadden/The Racing Experts

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

What: Gander Outdoors 400

Where: Dover International Speedway

When: Sunday, October 7

Time: 2 p.m. ET

TV: NBCSN, 1 p.m. ET

Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 400 miles (400 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 120), Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 240), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 400)

After a frenetic Round of 16 cutoff race last weekend at the Charlotte Roval that involved a baffling Turn 1 pileup amongst the leaders on a late restart, Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson spinning each other out for the win entering the final series of turns, and a three-way tie for the last two Round of 12 positions, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs rolls along Sunday at Dover.

Last year, the Cup Series’ second stop at Dover happened to be the Round of 16 cut off. Now, it kick-starts the Round of 12 and could very well be the pivot point in this year’s playoff with Talladega looming. Considering the circumstances, Sunday’s 400-miler is unpredictable. The pace could be chippy, with teams scrapping to build the biggest cushion or makeup as much ground as possible ahead of Talladega. That being said, the tempo could be similar to Richmond two weeks ago, when teams seemed to be content with whatever their car gave them instead of pushing the limits.

We do know this: Whoever wins on Sunday is locked into the Round of 8 and, from a mathematician’s stance, has a 50 percent chance to be in the Championship Four at Homestead. Oh, and you can’t forget about Johnson at Dover. He may have been eliminated, but the 11-time winner at the Monster Mile desperately wants to end his 50-plus race winless drought.

Playoff picture

1. Kyle Busch +47 — Thanks to a rain shower, Busch’s playoff points earned him the pole for the Gander Outdoors 400. He enters the Round the 12 with the comfiest cushion and though he’s been fast at Dover the past few years (a win and average start of 2.6 the last five races), he needs to tread carefully, having two DNFs in his last five starts at the track. One more on Sunday could put him on spotty ice ahead of Talladega, one of the worst tracks of his career.

2. Kevin Harvick +42 — At Richard Childress Racing, Harvick failed to win a race at Dover over 13 years (26 starts) and totaled just three top fives and 12 top 10s in that span. Since flipping to Stewart-Haas, the Dover woes haven’t just vanished but the Monster Mile has become one of Harvick’s best tracks. He has two wins, three top fives and four top 10s in 10 races at the speedway with a dominant win this spring. At 42 points to the good entering Dover and with Kansas back-ending the Round of 12 (3.0 average finish and two wins since 2016), Harvick shouldn’t have anything to worry about … yet.

3. Martin Truex Jr. +30 — Theoretically, Truex Jr. could’ve won all three races in the Round of 16. He led 96 laps at Las Vegas and couldn’t close the deal to finish 10. He dominated the first two stages before a pit road penalty did him in. He was leading last week at the Roval until Jimmie Johnson accidentally spun him around on a mismanaged last-turn pass. Dover, on a brighter note, has been good to Truex Jr. It’s where he bagged his first Cup win and since 2016 and it’s his sixth-best track, according to DriverAverages.com’s rating system. Maybe fortune will finally shift Truex’s way on Sunday.

4. Brad Keselowski +17 — After a quiet summer, Keselowski has come alive during the most crucial time of the year. He rattled off three straight wins at Darlington, Indianapolis and Las Vegas and had legit shots at Richmond and the Charlotte Roval, leading late in both races before failing to close the deal. Dover isn’t one of Keselowski’s best tracks, but he has top 10s in four of the past five races at the speedway and led 10.2 percent of the laps during that span (203 of 2,000). Another top 10 should add to his 17-point cushion.

5. Clint Bowyer +7 — Bowyer was fast here in the spring, starting second and leading 40 laps until a stumble down the stretch resulted in 12th. In terms of average finish, the Monster Mile is Bowyer’s third-best track at 12.48. With Talladega and Kansas — his second-worst track since 2016 — looming, Bowyer will likely need a top 10 or even top five on Sunday if he wants a strong shot at the Round of 8.

6. Joey Logano +6 — Logano isn’t stellar at Dover, having just one top 10 his past five races at the track. At six points above the cutline, he’ll need every point possible, but anything that’s not too detrimental Sunday shouldn’t ax his chances. Five of his 19 career wins have come at Talladega and Kansas, the other two tracks that will determine the Round of 8.

7. Kurt Busch +6 — Like his younger brother, the elder Busch has been hit or miss at Dover. It’s his third-worst track since 2016, but over the past five races, he’s finished in the top five twice. He was sixth and third-fastest in both practice sessions over the weekend, so maybe Busch is in line for another top-five day.

8. Ryan Blaney +5 — After winning last weekend’s inaugural Roval race, Blaney will look to add to his championship surge at the Monster Mile, a place he has two top 10s in five Cup starts and an XFINITY win. Another top 10 should put Blaney in a good position for Talladega and Kansas. Penske is bad fast at ‘Dega and Kansas is Blaney’s third-best track.

9. Chase Elliott -5 — Elliott must rack up as many points possible Sunday. Dover is one of his best tracks with four top fives in five career Cup races at the circuit. He showed he has top-five speed once again, clocking the fourth and fifth-best laps in both practice sessions. Anything outside of the top 10 would be a missed opportunity, as Talladega and Kansas are two places he doesn’t get around particularly well.

10. Kyle Larson -7 — Larson is in a situation like Elliott. He’s seven points to the bad entering a track he’s contended for wins nearly every time out. Nobody has led more laps than Larson at Dover since 2016 (463) and in nine career Monster Mile starts, he has seven top 10s. He was the fastest in both practice sessions over the weekend and he’s yet to win this year. Clearly, he’s due. Maybe this is finally the Sunday he puts it all together.

11. Aric Almirola -12 — Almirola has his work cut out for him this weekend. He’s 12 points in the hole and has the worst rating at Dover amongst the 12 playoff drivers since 2016. At best, he needs to find a way to make gains on Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson.

12. Alex Bowman -13 — The 16-seed lives to see another week after a fourth-place finish at the Roval. Odds-makers have Bowman as a longshot to get into the Round of 8, but, hey, he led 26 laps at Dover in the spring and Talladega is next week. If he can get his 13-point deficit into the single-digits, he’ll have a chance over these last two Round of 12 races.

Playoff drivers with the most wins at Dover

Kyle Busch 3

Kevin Harvick 2

Martin Truex Jr. 2

Brad Keselowski 1

Kurt Busch 1

Playoff drivers’ rating at Dover since 2016

Martin Truex Jr. 124.3

Chase Elliott 104.4

Kyle Busch 104.2

Kevin Harvick 103.9

Kyle Larson 103.0

Brad Keselowski 95.7

Joey Logano 83.8

Alex Bowman 82.3

Kurt Busch 81.4

Ryan Blaney 78.0

Clint Bowyer 76.7

Aric Almirola 66.9

Playoff drivers career average finish at Dover

Chase Elliott 5.00

Kyle Larson 8.11

Clint Bowyer 12.48

Martin Truex Jr. 12.92

Brad Keselowski 13.18

Joey Logano 14.11

Kevin Harvick 14.49

Kyle Busch 15.00

Aric Almirola 16.50

Kurt Busch 18.28

Ryan Blaney 21.80

Alex Bowman 29.80

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