Strategies might be different for the four drivers who are most in peril of not advancing in NASCAR’s Chase.
The end result for each of them, however, needs to be the same. Either win Sunday’s Citizen Soldier 400 at Dover International Speedway – the third and final race of the first round – or work yourself into the top 12 of the points standings to advance.
The math behind what needs to happen for Jamie McMurray, Austin Dillon, Tony Stewart and rookie Chris Buescher to avoid Chase elimination is too complicated to explain. NASCAR’s statisticians don’t even attempt to. But suffice it to say that – failing a victory – each of the four will go after whatever they can get at Dover’s “Monster Mile.”
“It’s kind of nice to be able to go into a race and just worry about doing the best you can, getting that finish, being able to take chances and not worry about if it doesn’t work out,” said Buescher, who is 16th in the standings and – at 30 points out of the 12th spot held by Kyle Larson – has the steepest challenge Sunday.
Buescher and Stewart are the only two drivers in the last four who have won this season – Buescher at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway and Stewart at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway. McMurray and Dillon qualified on points alone. Another driver who has some concerns is Larson, who is inside the top 12 but just five points ahead of McMurray and Dillon.
Right now I’m in a large dark room and I don’t know where the wall is, let alone a light switch. If I can find it, I’ll flip it in a heartbeat.
So, although they also had to finish in the top 30 to make the Chase, Stewart and Buescher have yet to raise their performances in the Chase. Stewart’s average finish this season (including the Chase races at Chicagoland Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway) is 17.5. Buescher’s is 26.7.
So Stewart, who is retiring from Cup competition after this season, echoes Buescher’s approach. He’ll go as hard as he can for as long as he can, and not worry about who’s in front or behind him.
“What difference does it make?” Stewart said. “I’ve still got to get every spot I can and when it’s over and they do the math, we’ll know where we’re at. There’s only one car of 40 out there that I can control: mine. So you go out and do the best with what you’ve got.”
The four lowest-ranked drivers in the Chase will be eliminated after Sunday’s race at Dover (Del.) International Speedway.
Stewart is a three-time champion. Dillon and Buescher are competing in the Chase for the first time. McMurray, the only one of the four who was in the postseason in 2015, was on the opposite side of the Chase bubble heading to Dover last season. He needed to maintain his 11th-place spot to move into the second round. Although he finished fourth, he dropped to 13th and out of the Chase behind Dale Earnhardt Jr.
McMurray and Earnhardt raced each other for much of the latter part of the race. Earnhardt finished third and edged McMurray for that final spot.
“Last year was a lot of fun, getting to race with (Earnhardt) and knowing that I had to finish ahead of him in order to advance to the next round,” said McMurray. “As far as this year, you don’t know until you get on the track. You don’t know the circumstances, how they’re going to play out.”
3 Career victories at Dover for Tony Stewart
So, the last four will just drive as if it’s their final race of the season, which it could be, at least from a championship-chasing perspective.
“That’s probably not what they want me to say, but we really don’t have to play it safe at all,” said Buescher. “We can go out here and we can try to gamble on fuel. We can take two tires if we feel it’s decent in practice. We have an endless amount of options that are open for us right now because where we’re at, the last two weeks have not been what we wanted.
Stewart was asked if he could flip on a switch to find some kind of magic inside his No. 14 Chevy. He stressed that finding a switch isn’t as easy as it might seem, much less being able to simply turn it on.
“Right now I’m in a large dark room and I don’t know where the wall is, let alone a light switch,” he said. “If I can find it, I’ll flip it in a heartbeat.”
The final four
Here’s how the bottom four in the Chase standings have fared so far in the postseason and how they’ve done at Dover (Del.) International Speedway in their careers:
13. Jamie McMurray
17.4 (27 starts)
14. Austin Dillon
15. Tony Stewart
16. Chris Buescher
*includes three victories