DOVER, Del. — For the second week in a row, the intensity of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs reared its head in the closing laps.
As drivers took the green flag with four laps remaining Sunday for what appeared to be the final restart of the day at Dover International Speedway, the tantalizing prospect of a win had the field going for broke.
But that mad dash to the finish produced a collision among some of the leaders that resulted in damage to numerous playoff participants. Brad Keselowski, Aric Almirola, Martin Truex Jr. and Alex Bowman were all caught up in the crash that brought out the red flag and sent the race to overtime.
Chase Elliott took advantage of the unexpected opportunity to earn his second career Cup win, holding off Denny Hamlin on the overtime restart to take the checkered flag at the Gander Outdoors 400.
“We had a penalty there early and fell behind, but luckily we had a good enough car and a good enough strategy to come back,” Elliott said after thanking his team owner Rick Hendrick.
Elliott became the first driver to clinch a berth in the Round of 8, and earned redemption after his heartbreaking loss one year ago at this same track. Last year, Elliott led 59 laps in the final stage before watching Kyle Busch overtake him with two laps to go, forcing Elliott to settle for second.
“It definitely makes it sweeter,” Elliott said about reversing his fortunes from last year. “You don’t appreciate it when it happens but to come back today and not have to worry about Talladega (next week) definitely makes it sweeter.”
Added Hendrick: “What a great day for Chase. I’m so proud of him, especially after last year. He’s smart. He’s like his dad (NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott). He knows how to race and has unbelievable car control.”
Joey Logano finished third, followed by Erik Jones and Kurt Busch.
For Kevin Harvick, Sunday was a case of a dominating drive turning into disaster.
Harvick, who seemed well on his way to his eighth victory of the season, had led 286 laps when he hit pit road for green-flag pits stops on Lap 319. Two laps later, the Dover spring winner was forced to return after his left rear tire went flat when a lug nut broke a valve stem. Harvick rebounded to finish sixth but left Dover disappointed.
“You can’t control where the lug nuts fly,” a resigned Harvick said. “Our Ford was really fast, and that’s it. … We were lucky there avoiding that crash but maybe that makes up for losing the race with an absolutely dominant car.”
Clint Bowyer, who finished runner-up to Harvick in May, suffered a flat tire with 18 laps remaining after contending for the lead earlier in the race. Ten laps later, things went from bad to worse when he slammed into the wall on Lap 392 ending his day and leaving him with the worst finish among playoff drivers (35th).
“I’m just really disappointed,” Bowyer said after being checked and released from the infield care center. “I’m frustrated with our day, obviously. We had a very fast race car.”
Bowyer also expressed disappointment for his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Almirola, who was leading the race before Bowyer’s accident brought out the caution. “I’m just sick for Aric. He had that race won. It was his win and unfortunately his teammate had trouble and took him out of it.”
Almirola was able to salvage a 13th-place finish, in front of Keselowski and Truex, who finished 14th and 15th respectively. Among other playoff drivers, Kyle Busch came home eighth, Ryan Blaney 11th, Kyle Larson 12th and Bowman 28th.
Almirola was clearly devastated at seeing a victory slip from his grasp.
“We’ve had so many opportunities and been so close and had the car to win and been in position, and I don’t know — it just seems to not come through. I’m frustrated and mad and angry. … I feel like we should be over there in victory lane celebrating but we’re not.”
Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson, who suffered heartbreak last weekend when he spun while racing for the win at Charlotte Motor Speedway, had issues before the green flag even flew.
Johnson, who made his NASCAR Cup Series debut 17 years ago to the day in 2001, had noticeable problems with his right front on the pace laps and was forced to take his car to the garage while the rest of the field lined up for the start.
Johnson told his team over the radio that he thought his splitter broke. Moments later, the Motor Racing Network reported from the garage that the No. 48 Chevrolet suffered a broken lower ball joint.
A series of quick repairs allowed Johnson to return to the track, but the 11-time Dover winner rejoined the race 10 laps down before finishing 36th.
GANDER OUTDOORS 400 RESULTS
Sunday from the 1-mile Dover International Speedway (starting position in parentheses):
1. (9) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 404.
2. (15) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 404.
3. (6) Joey Logano, Ford, 404.
4. (16) Erik Jones, Toyota, 404.
5. (7) Kurt Busch, Ford, 404.
6. (2) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 404.
7. (14) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 404.
8. (1) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 404.
9. (21) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 404.
10. (19) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 404.
11. (8) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 404.
12. (10) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 404.
13. (11) Aric Almirola, Ford, 404.
14. (4) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 404.
15. (3) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 404.
16. (18) Paul Menard, Ford, 403.
17. (17) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 403.
18. (20) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 402.
19. (22) William Byron, Chevrolet, 402.
20. (28) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 402.
21. (25) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 401.
22. (24) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 400.
23. (29) Bubba Wallace, Chevrolet, 399.
24. (26) David Ragan, Ford, 399.
25. (23) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 399.
26. (27) Michael McDowell, Ford, 399.
27. (31) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 397.
28. (12) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, Accident, 396.
29. (30) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 396.
30. (33) Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, 394.
31. (37) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Toyota, 394.
32. (35) JJ Yeley, Toyota, 392.
33. (34) Landon Cassill, Chevrolet, 390.
34. (36) BJ McLeod, Ford, 389.
35. (5) Clint Bowyer, Ford, Accident, 388.
36. (13) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 387.
37. (32) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, Rear Gear, 314.
38. (39) Harrison Rhodes, Chevrolet, Brakes, 308.
39. (38) Timmy Hill, Toyota, Transmission, 35.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 122.404 mph.
Time of Race: 3 hours, 18 minutes, 2 seconds.
Margin of Victory: 0.265 seconds.
Caution Flags: 5 for 31 laps.
Lead Changes: 15 among 8 drivers.
Lap Leaders: K. Busch 1-15;K. Harvick 16-74;R. Stenhouse Jr. 75-81;K. Harvick 82-126;J. Logano 127-128;K. Harvick 129-189;B. Keselowski 190;K. Busch 191-194;K. Harvick 195-242;C. Bowyer 243;K. Harvick 244-320;K. Busch 321-322;A. Almirola 323-341;B. Keselowski 342-348;A. Almirola 349-393;C. Elliott 394-404.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): Kevin Harvick 5 times for 286 laps; Aric Almirola 2 times for 64 laps; Kyle Busch 3 times for 21 laps; Chase Elliott 1 time for 11 laps; Brad Keselowski 2 times for 8 laps; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 1 time for 7 laps; Joey Logano 1 time for 2 laps; Clint Bowyer 1 time for 1 lap.