Contenders ready to lead the pack at Monster Mile

Kyle Busch waits before Monster Energy practice at Dover International Speedway on Saturday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — The contenders for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship won’t have to worry about getting to the front in today’s second round playoff race at Dover International Speedway.

They’re starting up there already.

Since qualifying was washed out, the field was set by points. So all 12 drivers still alive in NASCAR’s playoffs will lead the pack as the green flag for the Gander Outdoors 400 today.

And the Dover fall race is usually a solid indicator of who should win the championship at the end of the year.

The winner at Dover has gone on to win the series title four times since 2009.

Martin Truex Jr. signs autographs before practice on Saturday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Whoever wins today will seal their place in the third round.

Kyle Busch will start first by virtue of him being first in points. Busch won this race last season on his way to a runner-up finish in the final standings.

Kevin Harvick, who won here in the spring, will start second.

While qualifying was rained out, the drivers did have an 80-minute practice session on Saturday. Kyle Larson was the fastest at 159.011 mph. He also topped the field in the lone practice session on Friday.

Jimmie Johnson signs autographs before Monster Energy practice at Dover International Speedway on Saturday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Larson is 10th in the standings and that’s where he’ll start today.

Larson barely made it into the Round of 12 thanks to a last lap crash which gave him one more vital position at the conclusion of the first round last weekend.

“Hopefully, that means something for us and we can take advantage of the opportunity we were put in last week and go out there and have a good rest of the playoffs and maybe make it to the Final Four,” Larson said.

Martin Truex Jr. will start third.

Truex Jr. won the fall race in 2016 and went on to earn his first career Cup Series championship that season.

Busch, Harvich and Truex Jr. have famously dominated this season, earning the moniker of the “Big Three.”

But the rest of the Cup Series has pulled closer to those three in recent weeks, led by the three drivers at Penske Racing.

Penske has combined to win four of the last five races. All three of its drivers are in the Round of 12.

Ryan Blaney is coming off a victory last weekend while Brad Keselowski won three races in a row in early September.

“I wouldn’t say we’re a championship favorite,” Blaney said. “I’d say we’re in the hunt, and honestly we’ve been in the hunt all year.”

But Penske has not won at Dover since Keselowski in 2012. He eventually captured the championship that season.

The Penske crew would love to keep up their strong string of recent results with another victory.

“It really does build a lot of momentum within the race team,” said Penske driver Joey Logano. “You want to be the driver and the team that brings home the win for the race team, but there are still a lot of good things to see your teammate win that comes along with that. Obviously, the momentum for them, but the momentum for everybody back at the shop. It also motivates you, because you want to be the guy that brings home the wins and it proves that your cars can do it.”

Keselowski starts fourth, Logano sixth and Blaney eighth today.

Clint Bowyer (fifth), Kurt Busch (seventh), Chase Elliott (ninth), Aric Almirola (11th) and Alex Bowman (12th) round out the playoff field.

Reach staff writer Tim Mastro at tmastro@newszap.com

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