For the sixth time in 2016, and the third consecutive time at Dover, rain on Friday set the pole for Sunday. For the first time this season however, the lineup means a great deal to 16 drivers. Thanks to owner points, Brad Keselowski will lead the field to the green for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Citizen Soldier 400, but all 15 of the other drivers in NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup will occupy the first eight rows. For four of the drivers their hopes for a 2016 title will be over when the checkered flag falls Sunday.
“I think it makes it more fun to watch, at least at the start because you’ve got the 12th and 13th-place car right next to each other,” Keselowski said. “That should be compelling to watch. I won’t get to see it, but you will. That will be fun to watch. Other than that, those things have a way of working their way out – the good teams and the best cars on that particular day, or the worst ones will find their way to the back. But at the start, it will certainly be very compelling.”
Friday the teams did get in a full practice session. That session was led by Kyle Larson. Larson finished second here in the spring race, but is on the bubble and will roll off 12th Sunday. Among those currently outside the top 12 is Larson’s teammate Jamie McMurray. He will start 13th Sunday.
“You don’t know until you get on the track,” McMurray said prior to practice Friday. “You don’t know the circumstances, how they’re going to play out. I think the Chase hasn’t had the drama that it normally does to this point, so if you’re a guy on the outside looking in trying to advance to the next round you’re hoping that it’s a fairly dramatic race and that something big happens with somebody up front that’s going to shake it up a little. It can happen for sure here.”
McMurray was 16th in Friday’s practice. Jimmie Johnson will start 8th Sunday. He may have a relatively secure spot to avoid elimination, and leads all active drivers with 10 career wins, but he’s well aware that a small mistake or a mechanical issue could lead to trouble. In the race in May, Johnson missed a shift on a restart on lap 355 while at the front of the field. His mistake set off a multi-car crash and left him with a 25th place finish. Mechanical issues in this race last year left him in 41st and eliminated from the Chase.
“I’m excited to be back to my best race track, without a doubt,” Johnson said Friday. “I think last year shows that you really can’t count on a race track always being kind to a driver or always working in their favor. It’s part of racing. I’ve learned it through many different lessons over my racing career. Last year, I think, kind of showed everybody once again that you just can’t take a race or a track for granted for anybody. We’re back with high hopes. I love being here.”
Some have complained that the first two races of this year’s Chase hasn’t had the drama of years past.
“It’s like trying to have a good finish in every single race,” McMurray said. “You’re not going to have that, and that’s what makes the exciting finishes so great. I guess it’s circumstantial. Normally the restarts at Loudon somebody always gets tangled up, and the fact that it’s one of the first Chase races there is usually some drama there. We just didn’t have that this year.”
With all 16 drivers in the Chase leading the field Sunday, Dover could provide the type of excitement some are seeking. As Johnson proved in the last two Dover races, it could also dash the hopes of a championship run.
“Dover is one of those tracks that if there is an accident on the track it typically involves a lot of people that have to go to the garage, and it’s hard to repair your car,” McMurray said. “This is one of those places where we could have that and we could shake it up a little bit.”
Johnson he’s personally had plenty of drama in the last two races.
“We had plenty of drama at Chicago,” he said. “I was super-hyped to lead laps and thought we had a chance to win. I made a mistake on pit road. And then failed LIS following the race and then (penalty) points were given back. So my Chicago was about as exciting as any Chicago I’ve ever had, personally.
“Last weekend was plenty tense for me,” he added.” We started the first half very competitive. We lost some track position; and then Loudon was very challenging for me to try to get back through. So, from where I was sitting, I had plenty of challenges and it felt like a typical pressure-packed start of the Chase.”
“It’s so hard to make everybody happy. It actually frustrates me to hear that…. It’s just tough to make everybody happy.”
As of Friday the forecast is for a decreasing chance of rain the entire weekend. The full lineup for Sunday can be found here. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Citizen Soldier 400 will be run this Sunday with live coverage will be on the NBC Sports Network starting at 1:30 p.m. ET with the green flag coming just after 2:00 p.m. ET.