Will this be Separation Sunday in NASCAR?
The Cup circuit heads to Dover (Del.) International Speedway, a concrete, one-mile bowl of a track. Dover happens to be the favorite stop in the Chase of Jimmie Johnson, the current points leader and five-time champion, while also being the most dreaded joint in the playoffs of his two main contenders for the title, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski.
Hamlin, who has a career average finish at Dover of 20.5, has steadfastly refused to even mention the name of the track for the majority of the season, as if uttering the D-word would somehow doom his performance this weekend. He recently sought advice from a sports psychologist to help him overcome his Dover deficiency -- Hamlin was told he needs to "fall in love" with the track, according to SI.com's Dustin Long -- but one of the most difficult things to do in NASCAR is to suddenly find speed at a place where a driver has floundered for years. So Hamlin, who is third in the standings and seven points behind Johnson, has a tall mountain to climb Sunday.
So does Keselowski, who has an average finish of 17.0 in five career starts at the Monster Mile. After winning the opening Chase race at Chicagoland, he now trails Johnson by a single point. "There is no question that Dover is probably our weakest track in the Chase," Keselowski said. "We've had some good, not great, cars in the past."
Then there is Johnson. He's won four of the last seven races at Dover, including the summer event at the one-mile track. On that day in June, Johnson started on the front row and then led 289 of the 400 laps in one of the most dominating single-race performances of the season. He has what drivers call "the feel" for the concrete oval, and if he blazes to the front early on Sunday, odds are he'll drive away from the field -- just like he did in June.
"If we can run up front and kind of control the race and control who we are racing around, I feel like we can make up a lot or hopefully distance ourselves [in the standings]," Johnson said. "I want to come out of there with the points lead."
He has it now -- and it says here he'll pad that lead on Sunday and win his first Chase race in 2012. It won't be his last.
Along with Johnson, Keselowski and Hamlin, here are three other drivers I'll be watching when the green flag waves at the Monster Mile:
1. Tony Stewart
Why is Darien Grubb, the crew chief who led Stewart to the Cup title last year, no longer atop Stewart's pit box? I've been told by several longtime garage insiders that a lot of it has to do with how Stewart performed at Dover in the Chase last fall. That afternoon Stewart -- for the only time in the 2012 Chase -- could barely control his car through the turns and finished 25th. Stewart and Grubb would rebound to win three of the last four playoff races to capture the title, but by then Stewart had already decided to replace Grubb once the 2011 season was over.
Currently third in the standings and 10 points behind Johnson, Stewart has had a quiet Chase thus far. He came in sixth at Chicago and seventh in New Hampshire. If he's going to make a move in the standings and threaten to repeat as champion, he needs a strong run at Dover, where he hasn't finished higher than 21st in his last four starts. If he doesn't do better than that on Sunday, his shot at the title will be, well, shot.
2. Kasey Kahne
In his first season at Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne has delivered on the immense promise the 32-year-old has shown throughout his career. After qualifying for the Chase as a wildcard based on his two regular season wins, he finished third in the playoff opener at Chicago and then fifth last week in New England. This type of top-five consistency is precisely how you win a championship, and now Kahne is in fifth place in the standings and trails Johnson by 15 points.
Though Kahne hasn't led a lap in his last four starts at the Monster Mile, he's finished ninth and fourth, respectively, in his last two starts here. To stay close to Johnson, Kahne needs a top-three run on Sunday -- something he appears eminently capable of achieving.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Is the season starting to slip away from Earnhardt, who has enjoyed a career rebirth in 2012? Last weekend in New Hampshire, Earnhardt was slow in both practice sessions and then struggled for most of the race, finishing 13th. That left him seventh in the standings and 26 points behind his teammate Johnson.
Earnhardt, like all the other Chase drivers, must assume that Johnson will at least finish in the top 10 in all the remaining races. That means Earnhardt can't afford to lose many more points. So Earnhardt's mission on Sunday is to simply stay close to Johnson and then, next week at Talladega -- which is Earnhardt's best track in the Chase -- try to make up the points deficit.
Past statistics don't really apply to Earnhardt in 2012, because he's so much faster than he's been in several years. So take this with a grain of salt: Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Earnhardt has only finished in the top 10 once at Dover in nine starts. The good news for NASCAR's most popular driver: That one time was in June, when Earnhardt came in fourth.
On what I think will indeed be Separation Sunday, in a race that very likely will be dominated by the No. 48 Chevy, Earnhardt surely would be happy with another top-five run.