Upon Further Review: Don’t overlook these drivers in Sprint Cup Chase

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DOVER, Del. — As the focus remains with the Toyota teams entering the second round of the Sprint Cup Chase, don’t forget about others.

Kevin Harvick already has won a race in this Chase. Jimmie Johnson was “just as good” Sunday as Dover winner Martin Truex Jr.’s team, according to crew chief Cole Pearn.

Both Harvick, who has made it to Miami each of the past two years, and Johnson will continue to be teams to watch — along with rookie Chase Elliott — but don’t ignore the Team Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

Keselowski finished in the top five in each of the three opening-round races, and Logano had an average finish of 6.3 in those races.

“Consistency is just as important as winning in this format,’’ Keselowski said after his fourth-place finish at Dover. “I think sometimes that gets lost. You might even say that consistency is more important.’’

Keselowski and Logano both said Sunday that their teams still have some work to do compared to the Toyota teams.

“Our execution is there,’’ Logano said. “We’re doing what we’re supposed to do. We just want to continue to build a little bit faster race cars so we can race for the win.’’

It was this round a year ago when Logano swept all three races — Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega. Keselowski had an average finish of 5.3 at those tracks earlier this year, including a win at Talladega. He and Logano have combined to win three of the last four races at Talladega, which serves as the cutoff race in the second round and will trim the field of title contenders from 12 to eight.

While history doesn’t guarantee success, the Penske duo will be worth watching these next three races.

GROWING STRONGER

Martin Truex Jr.’s third win in the last five races comes as his team’s issues on pit road have disappeared.

Slow pit stops, wayward lug nuts, and other misfortune have made pit road a challenging place for Truex and his team throughout this season.

Twice this season a lug nut created issues — knocking off the inner valve stem when he led at Pocono in August, causing a flat tire and Truex to hit the wall, and getting stuck between the brake rotor and caliper at Richmond in April.

The pit crew has had few hiccups since Michigan, the race before Truex’s streak started. During that August event, Truex led when he came for a pit stop. The car fell off the jack and the left rear wheel wasn’t attached. When the car came down, it hit the wheel and damaged the quarter panel. Instead of challenging for the win, Truex finished 20th that race.

While he has had a speeding penalty (at Richmond) since the Michigan race, pit road has been error-free for his crew.

In that same Michigan race, Jimmie Johnson’s crew had a fueling issue that slowed a stop and hurt his chances of racing for the win. He finished sixth.

Johnson’s issues on pit road have continued since that race:

  • NASCAR penalized his team for an unapproved body modification during a pit stop in the Southern 500.
  • Johnson was caught speeding on pit road at Richmond, and his team was penalized for not having control of a tire in that race.
  • In the Chase opener at Chicago, Johnson was caught speeding on pit road.
  • NASCAR penalized Johnson’s team Sunday at Dover for going over the wall too soon. The stop’s timing was thrown off when Johnson slowed on his approach to his stall to let Aric Almirola exit his stall and drive by.

“I can tell you I’ve been on the other side of that throughout my career,’’ Truex told NBC Sports. “It hurts. I know how Jimmie is feeling. I’ve lost four or five races here on similar things. I know how he feels on that.

“Certainly the pit crew has worked really hard. Michigan was a huge, huge letdown for them. That’s really where it changed. They went to work, and they didn’t point fingers. They didn’t blame anybody. They said, ‘We need to get better and we know we can be better,’ and honesty since then, they’ve been flawless.’’

FOCUSED … AND CONFIDENT

Erik Jones was frustrated throughout Sunday’s Xfinity race with the handling of his car. Things got so bad he worried about abusing his right front tire and pitted on Lap 99, out of sequence  with the field. Turned out the tire was fine, the crew reported.

The way the rest of the 200-lap race went, Jones had to pit with less than 10 laps left for two seconds of fuel to make it to the finish. He placed 16th.

He heads into Friday night’s race at Charlotte — which will reduce the Xfinity Chase field from 12 to eight — 10th in the standings. He is four points behind Brennan Poole, who holds the final transfer spot.

Jones was not pleased after Sunday’s race, saying: “Just kind of an embarrassing day overall. We want to run a lot better than that. It’s pretty embarrassing to not even be in the Chase right now for the next round. Got a lot of work to do. Got to have a good run at Charlotte. It’s just something that I would have never saw coming. Pretty disappointed.

“Got a good team. Have to do it right. We just didn’t do it. We didn’t have the car and things didn’t work out. Hopefully, we’ll have a better car next week at Charlotte and go out and, hopefully, get in into the next round. It will be a lot of work and a lot of pressure, but I think we can do it.’’

Afterward, Jones tweeted his confidence that he’ll move on to the next round.

PIT STOPS

— Sunday’s Dover race marked the 11th time in 29 races that Toyotas combined to lead more than 70 percent of the laps. In the first round of the Chase, Toyotas combined to lead 624 of the 970 laps (64.3 percent)

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s 11th-place finish was his best result since he placed second at Bristol in August.

Clint Bowyer’s 24th-place finish ended his streak of four consecutive finishes of 22nd place.

— There were seven cautions for accidents or spins in the first round of the Chase. All were listed as single-car incidents in the NASCAR race reports.

Austin Dillon was the last driver to advance to the second round of the Cup Chase by points. He had an average finish of 12.7 in the opening round. Last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the lowest average finish among those who advanced to the second round via points at 13.3. In 2014, Kasey Kahne advanced with an average finish of 18.7. Kevin Harvick has lowest average finish to advance to the second round at 21.3 last year but he moved on with a win.

— If you missed it, Xfinity driver Ryan Ellis said he was taking a precaution by going to a local hospital to be further evaluated after his crash in Sunday’s race left him with a headache. He tweeted after being examined.