The Backstretch Blog's Race Day: The first cut is the deepest


NASCAR wraps up round one of the playoffs this afternoon in Dover. Nothing like the Monster Mile to separate the contenders from the pretenders.

"It's definitely one of the more difficult tracks," said Kasey Kahne, who is one of the 12 drivers still trying to secure a spot in round two of the post season. "The hardest thing about Dover is on a long run your tires build up with so much air that your car starts bouncing a lot more and your head starts moving around a lot more. Every time the car bounces it tries to take grip out of the front or rear tires, whichever one is close to sliding. Trying to control that as a driver and with the balance of your car to me is key to really running well there."

Kahne pretty much needs to win in order to advance to round two. Winning is also the easiest route for Ricky Stenhouse, Jr, Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch.

"It is going to be a battle," said Stenhouse. "I think there is some strategy you can play to maybe get some stage points but you don't want to give up too much track position here. It will be a fine line of what your crew chief wants to do but it will be a heck of a battle for sure."

In reality though only Martin Truex, Jr, Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselwoski are locked in to round two. And if we have learned anything from the Chase era in NASCAR, it's that inevitably a driver everyone thought might be a contender has an issue and misses the cut in one of the early eliminations.

" For whatever reason, the first round has always thrown us some kind of curveball the last couple of years," said Kevin Harvick. "In the last two years, I think we've finished 38th and 20th at Chicago and then we went to Loudon and had to win last year before going to Dover, where we broke a trackbar. The first round has been a real doozie for us the last few years."

Harvick has never won at Dover. The man who owns the monster is Jimmie Johnson. He has 11 wins at the Monster Mile including Dover in the spring.

"Dover, hands down, is one of my favorite tracks," said Johnson. "It suits my driving style as well as the team in how they build and set up the cars. We have had so much success over the years at Dover, I wish we raced there every weekend. I can't wait to get in that race car."

The hottest man in the garage though is clearly Martin Truex, Jr, and he kept that momentum going by winning the pole for Sunday's race.

"I'm trying to enjoy every single week one at a time," said Truex. "At the same time, there's that chance at a championship out there, so you can't lose focus and say, 'Well, this is going great. We're just going to show up to the track and everything is going to be fine.' You still have to work hard. It's still difficult, so I think we've done a good job of just staying focused and getting through all that stuff and continuing to come to the race track and perform."

Busch, Larson, Matt Kenseth and Daniel Suarez round out the top 5 starters. Tennessee native Trevor Bayne starts 20th, Virginia native Denny Hamlin 6th

The green flag is set to drop at 2:15 on the Apache Warrior 400 and you can watch the race on the NBC Sports Network.

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