DOVER, DEL. | Time for some cuts, Chase style.
NASCAR’s revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format is set for its first elimination race, when four of 16 drivers will be out of the title picture by Sunday night.
Win and advance — and they’ll all have to zip by Kevin Harvick to have a chance at Victory Lane.
Harvick turned a lap at 162.933 mph to win the pole Friday at Dover International Speedway, leading the field for the third Chase race. Led by Harvick, Chase drivers took the top four spots and six of 10.
Harvick’s seventh pole of the season gives him one more than he had combined in his career entering this season. And it makes him one of the drivers to beat in a race where championship hopes are on the line.
The bottom four are dumped from the hunt: Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola are at risk of getting cut Sunday.
Hamlin, though, bolstered his bid to stay alive with a third-place qualifying run.
“It’s the most important race of my career because it’s the most significant of my career,” Hamlin said. “We’ve got to get past this weekend with a shot to win the title. If not, you become somewhat irrelevant.”
Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are locked into the next round with wins in the first two Chase races.
Kyle Busch starts second and Keselowski is fourth. Jeff Gordon is sixth and Hendrick Motorsports teammate and nine-time Dover winner Jimmie Johnson is eighth. The rest of the Chase field has Kasey Kahne 12th, Matt Kenseth 14th, Logano 16th, Carl Edwards 18th, Ryan Newman 20th, Almirola 21st, Kurt Busch 22nd, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 25th, Biffle 27th, and AJ Allmendinger 28th.
Only six points separate Hamlin and Kurt Busch from Newman in the 12th and final spot.
“I believe if I run top five, I’ll put myself in,” Hamlin said. “A lot of things can happen. A lot of people that had bad luck last week are going to have a rebound week. We just hope to be on the better side of all those guys when it unfolds.”
Kurt Busch is eight points outside the 12th-place cutoff and Almirola is 10. The top seven drivers in the field would need a ton of bad luck to fall out of a Chase spot, while Kenseth, Edwards, Allmendinger, Kahne and Newman are all on the bubble.
“I do understand the consequences of this race are higher than any of the other ones we’ve run this year, but that’s kind of fun,” Edwards said.
Jamie McMurray was the highest non-Chase qualifier in fifth. Tony Stewart starts 15th in his first race since a grand jury decided he would not be charged in Kevin Ward Jr.’s death.
Harvick, who drives for Stewart-Haas Racing, is winless in 27 career starts at Dover.
“We feel like we’re in good shape, and we just want to keep building on the momentum we have to try to further that to lead into Kansas,” he said.