12 drivers ready to reset race to Cup
Now we are 12.
Jeff Gordon took the checkered flag in Sunday's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway, but four other drivers got the axe in the first Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup elimination race in the history of the sport.
AJ Allmendinger, 2004 series champion Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Aric Almirola missed the cut for the next round of the Chase, as the field was pared from 16 drivers to 12 following the third and final Challenger Round race.
After the dominant car of Coors Light pole sitter Kevin Harvick had a major issue with the left front wheel on Lap 254 of 400, Gordon took control of the event on Lap 305, passing runner-up Brad Keselowski for the lead.
After a cycle of green-flag pit stops, Gordon led the last 71 laps, pulling away to win by a comfortable 4.352 seconds.
Jimmie Johnson ran third, followed by Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth, as all of the top-five drivers advanced to the Contender Round, a three-race elimination with visits to Kansas Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
Harvick (13th Sunday), Kyle Busch (10th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (17th), Ryan Newman (eighth), Carl Edwards (11th) and Denny Hamlin (12th) also advanced to the Contender Round.
The victory was Gordon's fourth of the season, fifth at the Monster Mile and 92nd of his career, third most all-time behind Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105).
And victory No. 92 had special significance beyond an automatic ticket to the next round of the Chase --especially after a blown tire last week at New Hampshire produced a 26th-place finish and put the four-time champion one disaster away from elimination from NASCAR's 10-race playoff.
"I think this is huge," Gordon said in Victory Lane. "We came in here with a little bit of extra pressure because we weren't guaranteed to be in. If we hadn't finished where we were running at New Hampshire last week (sixth when the tire blew), it would have been kind of an easy day for us. "But all we did was focus on executing as a team and trying to win this race and nothing else. It wasn't about the points; it wasn't about just squeezing by to get to the next round. It was about making a statement. I don't know how you make a bigger statement than what this team just did right there."
If Gordon took the suspense out of the closing laps, making what he called a "statement" with the victory, there was plenty of drama mid-pack, as Kasey Kahne rallied from four laps down to claim the 12th and final spot in the next round by two points over Allmendinger, who finished 23rd to Kahne's 20th.
On Lap 161, Kahne brought his No. 5 Chevrolet to pit road with a loose left rear wheel and lost two laps in the process. He lost two more during a subsequent green-flag pit stop.
Thanks to a wave-around and a timely caution for Harvick's issue on Lap 254, Kahne ran the rest of the race one lap down and gained enough positions to knock both Kurt Busch and Allmendinger out of the Chase.
Keselowski already had a victory in the Chase and a guaranteed spot in the Contender Round, but he wanted more.
"Yeah, we've had a really good start, so we can't really complain that much having won a race, and a second and a seventh," Keselowski said. "But it's hard to look at that. All I can think about is how I wanted to win all three races, and now it's time to move forward.
"Three more races, a new start, and what we were able to do in these last three, other than getting us to this next round, really mean nothing. We've got to keep our head on straight and push forward these next three like we have these last three."
All 12 remaining Chase drivers start the Contender Round with a baseline of 3,000 points. Any Chase driver who wins at Kansas, Charlotte or Talladega will advance automatically to the Eliminator Round. The Chase field will be reduced from 12 to eight drivers at Talladega.