The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers are facing the first elimination round of the 2017 postseason this weekend in Dover. For four drivers, their championship hopes for this season will come to an end, a realization that comes after the first two playoff races produced plenty of action.
The playoff opener at Chicagoland became a tale of penalties, both during and after the race. Pit road proved to be the biggest challenge for drivers. A total of six playoff drivers incurred pit road penalties, most of them for speeding; they included Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Martin Truex Jr., Austin Dillon, Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray and Kurt Busch. For Kyle Busch, the penalty came as a result of one of his crew members jumping the wall too soon, a misstep that was especially noteworthy given that Joe Gibbs Racing chose to swap the No. 18 pit crew with that of teammate Daniel Suarez for the postseason. Kyle Busch would go on to finish 15th at Chicagoland, but commented to NASCAR.com that the team would move past the mistakes.
The penalties did not stop there, though. Wednesday after the race, NASCAR confirmed that Chase Elliott’s team would be penalized for manipulating the aerodynamics. The aftermath was an encumbered second-place finish, loss of 15 driver points and 15 owner points, week-long suspensions for the crew chief and car chief, and a $25,000 fine for the No. 24 crew chief. The penalty dropped Elliott from sixth to eighth in the playoff standings; he is currently ninth following an 11th-place finish this past weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (NHMS).
Elliott was not one of the eight drivers who got caught in a wreck at NHMS on Sunday, but several playoff favorites were. Austin Dillon made contact with Kevin Harvick on the last lap of Stage Two, causing Harvick to slide sideways. The smoke from his tires all but blinded the rest of the field, including Kurt Busch, who was unable to see Harvick and hit him. Kurt Busch and Harvick would go on to finish 37th and 36th, respectively, as a result of the pile-up. Martin Truex Jr, who was leading at the time, spun in an effort to avoid the wreck and ended up finishing fifth.
The disappointing finish at New Hampshire means that Kurt Busch goes to Dover International Speedway in a must-win situation. Currently 15th in the playoff standings, it will be the only outcome that saves him from elimination. He is not the only driver facing the cutoff; one spot below Kurt Busch isKasey Kahne in the last spot in the playoffs, as far outside the Round of 12 as one can get. Austin Dillon (13th in the standings) and Ryan Newman (14th) also find themselves hoping for strong finishes this weekend at Dover. Dillon is tied with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. with 2044 playoff points, only one point ahead of Newman’s 2043. That closeness means that whatever happens at Dover on Sunday, every playoff driver will be battling like their season depends on it – and for four of them, it will.