Dover & Las Vegas Weekend Preview: It’s win-or-go-home for defending champ Harvick

Kevin Harvick (Getty Images)

Kevin Harvick (Getty Images)

For the second straight postseason, Kevin Harvick finds himself in a similar position as the UFC fighters he manages.

His back is against the wall.

Ranked 15th on the Chase Grid, 23 points below the cutoff line for the final transfer spot to the 12-driver Contender Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Harvick will almost certainly have to win Sunday’s AAA 400 cutoff race at Dover International Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) to advance in the playoffs.

Harvick’s situation is all too familiar.

Last season, the No. 4 Chevrolet driver faced the same predicament heading into the Eliminator 8 cutoff race at Phoenix. He smacked the pressure in the face, leading 264-of-312 laps on his way to Victory Lane, parlaying the momentum into a first-place finish in the Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway to capture his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series crown.

“I think we have definitely gained a lot of confidence in knowing we can handle every different situation,” Harvick said. “I don’t think there are a lot of them that can say that. We are definitely happy that we have been through those moments and been able to capitalize on those situations.”

Unlike Phoenix, where he owned five wins prior to the race, Harvick has failed to take a checkered flag at Dover in 29 starts – the most among active drivers without a victory. He enters the race with a little bit of encouragement, as he finished second in the spring race at the “Monster Mile.”

Despite his dire situation, Harvick remains calm and collected.

“This is why everybody watches,” he said. “Every situation is different. You just have to address whatever you think is right or wrong at that particular time to go out and do what is best for your team.”

Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, race winners at Chicago and New Hampshire, respectively, have already punched their tickets into the Contender Round and the other 10 spots will be filled by the winner at Dover if he is a Chase driver, with the remaining positions filled by Chase drivers with the most points.

Buescher in championship driver’s seat with 6 to go

With just six races left in the season, Chris Buescher holds a 19-point lead over Ty Dillon in the NASCAR XFINITY Series championship standings.

LEXINGTON, OH - AUGUST 16:  Chris Buescher, driver of the #60 Nationwide Children's Hospital Ford Mustang Ford celebrates winning the Nationwide Children's 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on August 16, 2014 in Lexington, Ohio.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

LEXINGTON, OH – AUGUST 16: Chris Buescher, driver of the #60 Nationwide Children’s Hospital Ford Mustang Ford celebrates winning the Nationwide Children’s 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on August 16, 2014 in Lexington, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

“I feel really good about our chances as we go down this homestretch,” Buescher said. “We have three race tracks that we look at as being solid for us, very good chances to go win a race (Dover, Kansas and Homestead).”

The 22-year-old Texan gets his next chance to extend his points advantage when he goes for the season sweep of Dover International Speedway in Saturday’s Hisense 200 (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Buescher played fuel-mileage strategy to perfection at the “Monster Mile” in May, beating second-place Matt Kenseth by more than 11 seconds.

In three career starts at Dover, Buescher has finished fourth and 11th in addition to his win for an average finish of 5.3. He enters Saturday’s showdown riding a five-race top-10 streak.

Meanwhile, Dillon rolls into Dover coming off a runner-up finish at Kentucky and with his own streak of 10 top-10 showings in the last 11 races. The No. 3 Chevrolet driver is set on catching Buescher.

“I think about (the points) every day and how bad I want that championship,” Dillon said. “I’ve been thinking about it since the start of the year and we’re going to keep eating. We’re hungry right now. We just have to go out there and keep getting our job done like we’re doing.

“The 60 (Buescher’s team), they’re backpedaling a little bit right now. We’re charging and they’re thinking about us. So that’s a good thing.”

Championship frontrunners Jones and Crafton ‘odds-on’ favorites at Vegas

One driver is the defending race winner, while the other dominates 1.5-mile tracks.

Matt Crafton (Getty Images)

Matt Crafton (Getty Images)

Erik Jones will attempt to visit Victory Lane at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the second straight year in Saturday’s Rhino Linings 350 (10 p.m. ET on FS1) as he tries to hold off NASCAR Camping World Truck Series intermediate track master Matt Crafton for the series championship.

Crafton cut Jones’ standings lead to a mere seven points after finishing runner-up last week at New Hampshire, while Jones placed seventh for his ninth consecutive top-10 showing.

With only six races left, the two-time defending series champion maintains he’s still not concerned about points.

“I’m honestly not truly worried,” Crafton said. “We’re just going into each and every race trying to lead laps and win the race. If we do that, we get max points … All in all, we just have to keep racing, putting this Menards Toyota Tundra up front every week and the points will come.”

Crafton has never won at Las Vegas, but he has three runner-up finishes there and has claimed five wins in the last two seasons at 1.5-mile tracks.

Jones is no slouch at intermediate tracks either. The NASCAR Next alum has led 44.4 percent (399) of the 898 total laps during the six Truck Series races at 1.5-mile speedways this season, but has just a pair of second-place finishes to show for it.

“Vegas is cool, a special place for me getting my first mile-and-a-half win there,” Jones said. … “It’s a cool place for me. I’m excited to go back. It’s one of my favorite mile-and-a-half tracks and should put on a good show.”

NASCAR Race Weekend Guide

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Race: AAA 400
Track: Dover International Speedway
Date and Time: Sunday, Oct. 4 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Tune-in: NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90
Distance: 400 miles (400 laps)
What to Watch For: Kevin Harvick virtually needs to win at Dover to advance in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup … Kyle Busch is one point behind the cutoff line to transfer to the Chase’s Contender Round. … Jimmie Johnson will make his 500th start at Dover, where he boasts a track-record 10 victories. … Joe Gibbs Racing has won 10 of the last 13 races… Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, race winners at Chicago and New Hampshire, respectively, have already punched their tickets into the Contender Round. The other 10 Contender Round spots will be filled by the winner at Dover if he is a Chase driver, with the remaining positions filled by Chase drivers with the most points.

NASCAR XFINITY Series
Race: Hisense 200
Track: Dover International Speedway
Date and Time: Saturday, Oct. 3 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Tune-in: NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90
Distance: 200 miles (200 laps)
What to Watch For: Chris Buescher tries to add to his 19-point lead over Ty Dillon in the standings with six races to go. … Last weekend’s Kentucky race winner Ryan Blaney attempts to become the first driver to notch consecutive victories this year. … Defending champion Chase Elliott ranks third in the series standings – 25 points behind Buescher. … NASCAR Next and Drive for Diversity alums Darrell Wallace Jr. and Daniel Suarez continue their battle for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors. Wallace, who considers Dover one of his top tracks, trails Suarez by 23 points in the rookie standings.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Race: Rhino Linings 350
Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Date and Time: Saturday, Oct. 3 at 10 p.m. ET
Tune-in: FS1, MRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90
Distance: 219 miles (146 laps)
What to Watch For: Two-time defending series champion Matt Crafton tries to close Erik Jones’ seven-point lead over him. … GMS Racing heads to Las Vegas – where driver Spencer Gallagher calls home – one week after winning its first race behind the efforts of Austin Dillon. … Extreme sports star Travis Pastrana will make his second career NASCAR Camping World Truck Series start. … Eldora winner Christopher Bell will start his first race since winning the Mud Summer Classic in Rossburg, Ohio.

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