Short practices are intense for Chase bubble drivers

Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John's Chevrolet, drives during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway on October 3, 2015 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images)

Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s Chevrolet, drives during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway on October 3, 2015 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images)

DOVER, Del. – With intermittent rain playing havoc with the racing schedule at Dover International Speedway, Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup contestants scrambled to learn as much as they could during two short practice sessions at the Monster Mile.

After posting the fourth fastest lap in a 25-minute opening practice Saturday, Kevin Harvick surged to the top of the speed chart at 156.033 mph during a Happy Hour session that lasted barely more than 15 minutes before rain returned.

Harvick almost certainly must win Sunday’s AAA 400 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) to advance to the Contender Round of the Chase.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., among a group of four drivers hovering around the Chase cutoff, was 11th fastest in the first practice and fifth fastest in the second. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet also posted the second fastest 10-lap average during the first session.

As Happy Hour wound down, Earnhardt seemed pleased with his car.

“I’m backing up the corner—it’s real nice,” Earnhardt radioed to crew chief Greg Ives. “I don’t have anything happening at all in the first half of the corner.

“I’m just waiting on the spring on the front, center-off.”

Earnhardt is 12th in the standings, the last transfer position into the Chase’s next playoff round. Kyle Busch, who is one point behind Earnhardt and currently out of a transfer spot, was 19th fastest in opening practice but improved to seventh in the second session.

Tenth in the standings and 12 points clear of Busch, Jeff Gordon nevertheless has cause for concern after two lackluster practices. The defending race winner was 32nd on the speed chart in the morning and 27th in the afternoon.

Following Dover, the four drivers with the lowest points totals and winless in the three-race Challenger Round will be eliminated from the postseason. Denny Hamlin and Matt Keneth, race winners at Chicago and New Hampshire, respectively, have already punched their ticket into the 12-driver Contender Round. 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.

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