DOVER, Del. (AP) — For a driver on the brink of championship elimination, Kevin Harvick might have the biggest target at Dover.
The mission is clear: Knock out Harvick, knock out a champion.
“Everyone in this Chase knows they are the biggest threat for the championship,” four-time champ Jeff Gordon said. “If they get eliminated then that takes the biggest threat out of it.
“Kevin and that team are going to be working hard and all the other teams are going to be working hard to win this race and potentially eliminate one of the biggest threats.”
Harvick and his team have been doing a pretty good job of taking themselves out of the running in their title defense.
Time may have run out on the No. 4 Chevrolet.
The third race in NASCAR’s playoffs is a crucial one — the bottom four drivers out of the 16 in the field are cut and gone from the title picture.
Harvick is 15th and will have to win to advance and remain in championship contention.
Kyle Busch, Paul Menard, Harvick and Clint Bowyer are in the bottom four and most at risk of elimination Sunday.
“We’ve still got racing to do,” Bowyer said.
Just not Friday.
There was no action on the track because rain wiped out qualifying at Dover International Speedway.
Even when it rains, the sun shines on Joe Gibbs Racing.
With the field set on points, Matt Kenseth has the pole and is followed by JGR teammates Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards. Hamlin won the Chase opener at Chicagoland and Kenseth won last week at New Hampshire to earn automatic berths in the next round.
The rest of the Chase grid looks like this: Jimmie Johnson is fifth, followed by Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., and Jeff Gordon. Jamie McMurray is 11th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. 12th.
Johnson won at May in Dover for the latest of his 10 career wins on the mile concrete track.
Harvick is 0 for 29 at Dover. He has two wins and a series-best 18 top-fives, but has busted out in the Chase. Harvick finished 42nd in the Chase opener and was 21st last week at New Hampshire. He was runner-up to Johnson in May in the first Dover race.
Harvick thrives on pressure and took the checkered flag in must-win races last season at Phoenix and Homestead to take the championship.
“It’s just really part of sports and that’s what makes it exciting,” Harvick said.
The only excitement Friday was found inside Dover’s media center.
Gordon, a five-time Dover winner, was feted by the track as he winds down his 23-year career. Gordon received proclamations from the city of Dover and Delaware’s House of Representatives and Senate. Dover also presented him with 90 miniature Monster trophies for his entire No. 24 team and his family.
“I don’t know how we’re going to get all those home,” he said.
But the nicest gift may have been the addition of Nick Odell as the No. 24’s starting front-tire changer. Odell, the best in the sport, was released by Joe Gibbs Racing after the Chase opener. Scott Brzozowski will move from the No. 24 team to Earnhardt’s No. 88 team as its starting front-tire changer.
Gordon’s last victory came in this race last season, and hoped it wouldn’t be remembered as the final one of his career.
“We didn’t have to win that race in order to move on, we just needed to have a solid day,” Gordon said. “I feel like we are in a very similar position this weekend.”
Gordon was among the drivers who praised NASCAR’s decision to double the restart zone for this weekend’s race from 70 feet to 140 feet.
The restart rules were unchanged, and drivers will still line up double file. The leader is the control car and the second-place car can’t pass the leader in the restart zone.
Brad Keselowski was penalized last week at New Hampshire for jumping a late restart. He complained that NASCAR was entertainment and unfair after the penalty.
Drivers have been outspoken in wanting NASCAR to take a harder look at restarts.
“My only question is, did they go big enough?” Gordon said. “I like that they are going to put it back into the leader’s hands a little bit. It doesn’t mean that still things aren’t going to go on, but I think it’s going to be better for NASCAR, better for the front row and better for the whole field.”
Johnson, a six-time series champs, championed the move but said more could be done.
“I am hopeful that they lengthen the box and bring it closer to the start/finish line,” he said. “I think it will slow down some of the three and four wide, into turn one scenarios we have had. It will be less distance to get speed built up closer to the start/finish line and I think we will maybe control that space a little bit better.”