End of the road for four NASCAR Cup playoff drivers at Dover

DOVER — There wasn’t much drama when it came down to which four drivers would be eliminated from playoff contention at the finish of the Apache Warrior 400 Monster Energy Series race at Dover International Speedway on Sunday.

The same four drivers who were on the outside looking in coming into the Dover race — Ryan Newman, Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch — were the same ones that were eliminated from title contention.

Among those drivers, Newman finished 13th, Kahne 14th, Dillon 16th and Busch finished 20th, with none of them earning enough points to crack into the Round of 12.

“I’m disappointed in the way that I drove all through this playoff run,” Busch said. “I was driving at 101 percent trying to get every ounce of speed out of it. It just never had a flow for three races.

“We needed a perfect day and playoff stage points. We just really never did well in Stage 1 and I thought that it might be our Achilles’ heel. I can’t fault anybody. We ran hard. We gave it everything we had.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. managed to survive any possible drama when he was the beneficiary of a huge break when Jeffrey Earnhardt spun out entering pit road on lap 87.

Stenhouse, struggling in the early part of the race, stayed on the racetrack as long as he could while the other drivers pitted for fuel and tires.

Earnhardt’s crash brought out a caution flag in the middle of a pit cycle and allowed Stenhouse to finish in fourth place in the first stage, picking up seven valuable stage points in the process.

Those seven stage points were the difference for Stenhouse as he ended the race two points up on Newman for the final transfer spot.

Stenhouse knew he was fortunate to advance into the Round of 12.

“The feeling is lucky really,” Stenhouse said. “We caught the caution there right at the right time with a perfect amount of laps left in the stage to get stage points and that was the turning point of the day.

“All in all, I feel lucky that we had all the mistakes at Chicago and really not a good car at Chicago, Loudon or Dover, but we still made it in. Really it is hats off to the guys for fighting all day and it is nice that the round starts over.”

McMurray finally advances

Every single playoff appearance by Jamie McMurray has ended the same way, with McMurray being eliminated after the first round.

That finally changed on Sunday when McMurray did enough to earn a berth in the Round of 12. He wound up in 11th place in the standings and was safe by 16 points.

McMurray made up a lot of ground to do it. He started 26th but methodically raced his way through the field and finished ninth.

He was one of the many cars trapped a lap down when Earnhardt spun into the sand barriers at the entrance of pit road during green flag pit stops for the race’s first caution.

McMurray stayed out during pit stops under a yellow flag to earn his spot back on the lead lap and stayed there the rest of the day.

“We got caught a little bit behind with (Earnhardt) backing into the barrels so we had to do the wave around,” McMurray said. “After that, we were cautious on those green flag stops to make sure we got the positions back. We had a great car and all around it was a really good day for us.”

Now that he’s advanced, McMurray is focusing on making it past the next round of eliminations after three more races. With Talladega and Charlotte coming up on the schedule, two tracks where McMurray has won in the past, he likes his chances.

“Fortunately for me that’s two of my best racetracks,” McMurray said. “I’m really excited about it.”

No Dover double for Blaney

Ryan Blaney put on a dominating performance to capture Saturday’s Drive Sober 200 Xfinity Series race at Dover.

He said he thought he learned some things in that race that would help him on Sunday.

However, Blaney struggled throughout the Apache Warrior 400 and brought home a disappointing 23rd-place finish.

He did manage to advance to the Round of 12 in NASCAR’s playoffs.

“There is a silver lining in that for sure,” Blaney said, about advancing in the playoffs. “It is definitely not the day we wanted and we got trapped a lap down early and didn’t fire off very good.

“The main goal is to transfer and I think the second round is really good for us. I am really excited about that. I am excited to get to Charlotte (next weekend).”

Dale Jr. bids Dover farewell

Dale Earnhardt Jr., making his final driving appearance at Dover before he settles into retirement at the end of the season, managed to drive to a seventh-place finish in the Apache 400.

Though Earnhardt never led the race, he was consistently among the leaders throughout.

It was his best performance at Dover since he finished third in the fall race in 2015.

Earnhardt finished his career at Dover with one win in September 2001, seven top fives and 12 top 10s in 35 career starts at the “Monster Mile.”

“This has been a track where we had some good runs and as any track it is ups and downs, but there is a respect and appreciation,” Earnhardt said during a press conference Saturday. “I want to thank Dover, the staff here, they have a unique history as a track in this sport.

“They have done some very interesting and innovative things to remain relevant and give the fans a great experience with the casino out front, the infrastructure inside the racetrack, the bus lot, everything about this place is first class.”

Sleeping monster

Dover International Speedway, a racetrack known for its penchant of chewing up race cars and spitting them out, didn’t have any teeth on Sunday.

In fact, the only incident on the track happened on lap 87 when Earnhardt spun out and backed his car into a barrel full of sand at the end of pit road.

Earnhardt’s crash brought out a red-flag race stoppage that lasted for 15 minutes and nine seconds as safety workers replaced the safety barrel.

There were only a total of four caution periods that encompassed 24 laps, including two brought on by the conclusion of the first and second stages.

Hill finishes last

Timmy Hill became the first driver to pull into the garage area after only completing 39 laps at Dover on Sunday.

Hill, driving the No. 66 Chevy, was relegated to a last-place finish in the 40-car starting field.

Hill is a 24-year-old from Port Tobacco Village, Maryland, who drives part-time in both the Monster Energy and Xfinity Series.

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