The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Round of 16 is in the books, with Martin Truex Jr. winning two of the three races and 12 drivers advancing to the next round, which begins Saturday night in Charlotte. Here are 10 things we learned in the first round of the Chase:
Getty ImagesChris Trotman
Buescher should still be proud
One of the most predictable outcomes was that rookie Chris Buescher and his small Front Row Racing team would not make it to the Round of 12. And, sure enough, he didn’t. Still making the Chase at all was a huge win for driver and team. They have nothing to apologize for.
Tough luck for Ganassi
For the first time, Chip Ganassi got both of his cars into the Chase. But in a stroke of rotten luck, neither made it out of the first round. Give credit to the team for making the Chase and give credit to drivers Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson for being gracious in defeat and hanging around to answer questions afterward.
NASCAR via Getty ImagesSean Gardner
No heroics from Smoke
Over his long career, Tony Stewart has had some amazing runs. But his final run at a fourth Sprint Cup title came up short at Dover, where Stewart was the top-ranked driver who didn’t advance. Still, his record and legacy stand on their own, despite the short end to his Chase.
Two first-timers advance
Rookie Chase Elliott and third-year driver Austin Dillon both advanced to the Round of 12 in their respective first Chase appearances. While both were impressive, Elliott had a pair of third-place finishes and nearly won the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway.
Brad Keselowski, the 2012 champion, posted top-five finishes in all three Chase races so far and five of the last six races overall. Those are the kind of results that lead to championships. His Team Penske teammate Joey Logano is just a tick behind, but last year Logano swept all three races in the Round of 12.
Strength in numbers
The Toyota armada is sitting pretty right now with five of the 12 remaining drivers in the Chase. That makes them the obvious favorites -- that and the fact that they’ve won 15 of 29 races so far. But Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing each have two drivers still in the hunt and Richard Childress Racing has one. Don’t assume a Toyota championship is a slam dunk. There’s still a lot of racing to go.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY SportsReinhold Matay
Mistakes will get you
We write about this every week, because it keeps happening every week: Mistakes will hurt you more than speed will help you. Sunday at Dover, Jimmie Johnson lost the race with a pit-road penalty, Kevin Harvick had a track bar mount break, Jamie McMurray lost an engine … the list goes on and on. The champion this year will be the driver -- and his team -- who doesn’t make mistakes in the clutch.
Cautions change everything
While there was not a single caution period over the final 200 laps at Dover, the outcomes of the first two Chase races were both decided by yellow flags in the final 10 laps. At Chicagoland and at New Hampshire, the driver leading with 10 laps to go, didn’t win the race. Over the final seven races, we’ll see similar scenarios a lot. The final pit stop and restart will be critical time and time again.
Watch out for the 48
A pair of pit-road penalties cost six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson possible victories at Chicagoland and Dover. To win a seventh title, the mistakes have to stop. There’s no question about it. But if anybody has the speed right now to beat the Toyotas, it’s Johnson. And he has some of his best tracks coming up.
Truex Jr. tops teammates
Martin Truex Jr. has been incredible in the Chase so far, winning two of three races and leading the most laps in the one race he didn’t win. The fact that Truex and his Furniture Row Racing Toyota is consistently outperforming his four teammates from Joe Gibbs Racing is interesting, to say the least. Will that continue deep into the Chase? If so, how will the JGR guys react? Inquiring minds want to know.