DOVER, Del. – Hard hats would have been an appropriate fan giveaway Sunday at Dover International Speedway.
The Dodge Dealers 400 was a disaster area for drivers in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
Even race-winner Carl Edwards had to overcome early race engine problems and avoided trouble from a record-setting 13 cautions before he could claim his third win of the season, which catapulted him to third place in the Chase standings and only three points behind leader Jeff Gordon.
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Nearly everyone else in the Chase had serious problems aided by a wild set of circumstances that included a late-race 12-car wreck involving Chase participants Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr.
There were plenty more.
Matt Kenseth – who dominated nearly the entire race – saw his engine blow up 26 laps from the finish. Kevin Harvick had a loose wheel and flat tire. Last weekend’s race winner, Clint Bowyer, and Denny Hamlin were involved in a wreck.
Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jeff Burton avoided any of the on-track incidents, but none ran particularly well. On this day they didn’t have to.
With the help of the mass of wrecked cars, Gordon’s 11th-place finish was enough to hand him the points lead on his own for the first time since the 12 drivers in the Chase were reseeded based on wins.
Even the race didn’t solidify Edwards’ status in the Chase. His No. 99 Ford failed post-race inspection and NASCAR officials took the car back to their research and development center in Concord, N.C., to verify measurements.
Any penalties would come later this week.
In the meantime, Edwards celebrated his team’s ability to escape the disaster that befell so many of his fellow competitors on Sunday.
“This is huge. It looked like Russian roulette, to me, for a while,” Edwards said.
“I do feel that we got out of here (unscathed). There’s just so many things that can happen. There’s no room for error at this track. To start off the Chase with a 12th and a win, that’s about as good as we could have hoped for.”
It didn’t look that way early, as Edwards’ crew was forced to pop the hood during one pit stop under caution and attempt to fix his throttle, which was causing him problems.
With that problem repaired, Edwards then had to make his way back through the field to Kenseth, his Roush Fenway Racing teammate, who controlled much of the race.
Edwards eventually passed Kenseth for the final time on Lap 363 of 400. Even with the lead and the eventual expiration of Kenseth’s engine, Edwards had to navigate through tricky restarts following four cautions in the final 25 laps.
“Those restarts were a real stresser, but (I) kind of just decided to have fun with it,” he said.
“And Greg (Biffle) was pretty fast at the end. I did not need another restart. I was pretty excited when it stayed green.”
Biffle’s second place finish – his best finish of the season – was aided by a decision to pit for tires during the race’s 12th caution on Lap 387. On the new rubber, he was already third with three laps remaining and moved into second with two to go.
“If I could’ve got to his bumper it might have been a challenge for him. I know he’s in the Chase and he had a little cushion today, and I needed a win pretty bad, but we were going to race him clean,” Biffle said.
“I wish I had a chance at him.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third, Mark Martin fourth and Kyle Busch fifth. Busch managed to rally for a top-five finish despite catching part of the 12-car wreck on Lap 387.
Sunday’s wild race left the top-six drivers in the Chase field separated by just 18 points. Even the 12th place driver remains a viable candidate for the title as he trails Gordon by 158 points, an attainable goal with eight of the 10 Chase races remaining.
“I think this Chase is turning into what people predicted,” Edwards said.
“The depth is such that I think you’re going to have to win races. I think it’s going to be an extremely tough Chase.”