Sunday is cut day at Dover International Speedway. The third race of the Monster Energy Cup Series playoffs, the Apache Warrior 400 (2 p.m. on NBCSN), will result in four drivers being eliminated from the postseason. It will be the first trim-down of the 16-driver field after races at Chicagoland and New Hampshire opened the race to the title.
Those races ended with unsurprising results: Martin Truex Jr., the series points leader at the end of the regular season schedule, won the opener at Chicagoland, while Kyle Busch took the checkered last weekend at New Hampshire.
Both Truex and the younger Busch earned passage to the next three-race segment courtesy their wins, but 14 other playoff drivers will need to perform this Sunday to avoid being among the four drivers eliminated.
Among them is Austin Dillon, who drives the famed No. 3 for grandfather Richard Childress and is one of a few North Carolina drivers in a series once dominated by racers from the Old North State.
“I’m really proud to be one of only three NASCAR drivers in the Cup series that are from North Carolina,” Dillon, who joins N.C. native Ryan Blaney in the playoff field, said. “And I do puff up my chest a little bit when we go out and represent well. This year winning at Charlotte felt good. So I’d like to bring a championship home to the state.”
The win at Charlotte was the first of Dillon’s career, made more special by the fact it came at his home track. And if Dillon can advance — he’s currently tied with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for the last spot to move on to the next playoff segment — Charlotte awaits, along with races at Talladega and Kansas where he has performed well.
“I love the second set of races,” Dillon said. “They’re race tracks I love to go to. There’s not like a place I hate in the playoffs. I’ve ran good at probably all those tracks at least once or twice. So I feel positive about that. But right now our main focus is Dover and not even thinking about those places.”
Dover hasn’t been as kind to Dillon, where his best career finish is eighth — his only top 10 in eight trips there in the Cup series. He’ll need a good finish while also doing a little leaderboard watching to know how the other drivers on the bubble are faring.
“I’ll definitely know who I’m racing throughout the week,” Dillon said. “I’ve been in this situation multiple times before in different series running for championships. So I’m pretty comfortable with it.
“Last year at Dover, a similar situation and we made it through the first round,” he continued. “This is what it’s all about; it’s the playoffs. … I feel like I have a team and a race car capable of making it to the next round and then reset so we go again and fight for it all over again.”
One of the drivers he’ll be jockeying with is fellow RCR team member Ryan Newman, who is just one point behind Dillon and Stenhouse for the last spot.
“I think we’ll both be working together this weekend,” Dillon said of racing with Newman. “But it is a different atmosphere because you’ve got to get to the next round. You’re racing a guy you see every week and you work with. So it will be different, but I’m always looking forward to the challenge, and it will be a competition within the competition I’m sure.”
Dillon already has championships in the Xfinity (then Nationwide) and Truck series, and wants to bring a Cup title back to the No. 3 — and North Carolina, where the last native to win a title was Dale Jarrett in 1999.
“It would be amazing to accomplish the feat,” Dillon said. “I’d be the first guy to win all three championships in the NASCAR series. It’s the ultiamte goal, and you have to keep working hard to get there.”
That hard work continues Sunday at Dover. Here’s where each playoff driver stands going in to the Apache Warrior 400 at Dover.
They’re in: Truex, Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson
As mentioned, Truex and Busch moved on thanks to their wins in the first two races. Larson, however, is already in on points thanks to his solid regular season and fifth and second in the first two races. Larson’s 13 top-five finishes are tops in the series.
Rest easy: Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson
Three of the four in this group are former champions, and Hamlin — still looking for his first title — is playoff-tested and has finished in the top 10 in each of the last three races at Dover. Johnson’s the favorite with 11 wins in 31 career races at Dover, while Kenseth has three career wins and 17 finishes in the top five in 37 trips to the Monster Mile.
Don’t wreck: Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray
This quartet isn’t on the hot seat, but they’re close enough to the bubble that they could stumble right out of the playoffs with a bad finish. Blaney and Elliott have each only raced three Monster Energy Cup races at Dover, but Elliott has top fives in all his starts while Blaney has just one top 10 and an average finish of 26th. McMurray hasn’t been great at Dover, but has only one career DNF. Harvick, barring disaster, should move on.
Danger zone: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman
If the segment ended after New Hampshire, only Stenhouse would still be alive. Newman’s won three times in his career at Dover but has cracked the top 10 just once in the last five trips there, though it was a fourth-place finish this June. Stenhouse and Dillon — both with career-best eighths at Dover — could probably use a breakthrough performance at the Monster Mile to sneak into the second playoff segment.
Checkered or bust: Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne
Both will likely need a win — or some severe misfortune for a couple bubble teams — to advance. The two veterans each have seven career DNFs at Dover, the most among playoff participants, and will surely roll the dice Sunday to try to win and move on. Busch has one win at Dover (in 2011) while Kahne’s best career finish is fourth — one of three career top-fives.