NASCAR's 2010 Chase for the Championship debuted at the Sylvania 300 Sunday with 12 drivers reset in the points and ready to fight their way to the top. Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin were the top seeds in the point reset due to their number of victories this season, but both would have plenty of work to do Sunday afternoon.
When the green flag flew, Tony Stewart started the day third, but jumped out to the early lead before Clint Bowyer wrestled it back after the first two rounds of pit stops. The chase contenders certainly made their presence felt as they jockeyed for an advantage after the first race of the Chase. Those runners dominated the top 10 all afternoon, but it was Stewart and Bowyer who dominated the race.
The finish came down to who had the most fuel in the tank. First it was Jeff Burton who stuttered and had to coast to the finish. Then it was Stewart's turn to endure the bad luck as he ran out coming to the white flag while in the lead. Bowyer, who had been at the front all afternoon, seized the opportunity and held off a charging Denny Hamlin for his first win of the season, and a golden start to his Chase effort.
Clint Bowyer Bowyer's afternoon started promising, leading the most laps of the first 100 after taking over from Tony Stewart who led in the early running. He started the Chase as the last seed, but with the revamped points, had a chance to win the championship without having scored a single victory, that is until he won this afternoon. Bowyer effectively had his spot in the chase wrapped up for the past three weeks and was able to focus on prepping for the final 10-race run to the end. It paid off. Bowyer was one of the fastest cars Sunday. Bowyer has just one top-10 finish in the last five races at Dover, and will be hoping to bring this week's momentum forward and improve that average next week.
Denny Hamlin Despite being caught up in a number of incidents throughout Sunday's 300 miles, Hamlin was driving the fastest car in the closing laps. He worked his way into the top five with just under 15 laps to go and looked like a man on a mission as he went to track down the leaders who were working to save fuel. In nine career starts at Dover, Hamlin's trophy chest holds two top-fives and three top-10s. His average finish in those starts is 22.8, but he won last week's race at Richmond International Raceway and was close to picking up yet another this weekend in New Hampshire. Hamlin may be the Chase driver to beat after overcoming some severe adversity this weekend.
Jeff Gordon Despite not scoring a victory all season, Gordon continued to show the consistent pace he's demonstrated all season in New Hampshire. Gordon was ever present in the top five throughout Sunday afternoon's race and did himself some good in his effort for another championship. Gordon could be in a good position as the Chase rolls on next weekend too. His average finish in the last nine races at Dover International Speedway is 10.0, and he owns four winner's trophies in total from 35 career starts at the track. Gordon may be the most likely candidate of those Chase driver drivers without a win to end the season on top.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt suffered yet another disappointing season in 2010, but Sunday he showed some life with a strong fourth-place performance. After starting strong, falling back, and then working his way forward again, Earnhardt showed that he could race amongst the top 10 cars. He only tallied two top-five finishes this season, but picked up his third this weekend, his seventh top-10 of the season. Earnhardt needed that run because next week he will find himself at a track where he doesn't typically perform well. His average finish in the last five Dover races is 24.2, and that isn't a good number to have behind you as to try to salvage another disappointing year.
Tony Stewart After being one of the fastest cars all weekend, Stewart put the speed to good use in Sunday's race. He led the opening laps before getting bogged down in the order after a four-tire stop early on. By the final run to the finish Stewart was back in front, challenging for the lead. Unfortunately he didn't have enough fuel and ran out on the start of the final lap, dropping him down the finishing order. Stewart's average finish in the last five races at Dover International Speedway is 14.4, and he scored three consecutive top-10 finishes there. Stewart could be ready to win his next championship, and another strong effort next week might negate the bad luck he suffered this week.
Matt Kenseth Hopes were high for Kenseth and Roush Fenway Racing. They successfully qualified for the Chase and momentum was on their side with a number of strong runs in the close of the regular season. Kenseth's day Sunday was rough compared to other chase contenders though. With less than 100 laps to go Kenseth found himself nearly a lap down in 21st place, and eventually in the wall. He was the lowest running Chase competitor at the time and did not get out of the gate quickly for this sprint to the finish. Luckily for the No. 17 team, Kenseth's average finish in the last five Dover races is superb at 3.2. Kenseth will need another strong finish there after stumbling out of the blocks.
Kurt Busch Busch is the only Dodge competitor in the Chase, and therefore has a lot to live up to. Those pressures may have weighed a little too heavy on the former champion though. He found trouble a number of times Sunday afternoon with contact and spins. Busch hasn't experienced much bad luck this season, but it definitely caught up with him this past weekend. His average finish in the last five Dover races is 16.6 despite taking home a pair of top-fives in that span. With two wins, eight top-fives and 15 top-10s so far this season, Busch shouldn't be a driver to write off, but Sunday did not get his championship effort started on the right foot.
Jimmie Johnson Johnson started Sunday's race strongly. He was deep in the field when the green flag flew, but worked his way quickly to the front. As the race wore on though, the luck that is such a stranger to the No. 48 team, yet so frequent a visitor in 2010, came to pay yet another visit. Johnson was in the thick of what seemed like every accident that brought out a caution flag, and with just a 50-mile run to the finish he felt a loose wheel that was causing him to plummet down the running order. This was definitely not the way Johnson wanted this 10-race stretch to start, and he may end up ruing the points lost. Johnson will hope for better luck next week at Dover where he has won two of the last three races.
Scott Speed Although he is not in the Chase, he might be on a lot of fantasy line-ups in the remaining races, and Speed had a rough weekend in New Hampshire. He started the week not feeling well and the team had Aric Almirola on standby should Speed not be able to race. The Californian's afternoon ended early though, which should give him some time to recover in his motor home. Speed was bumped from behind coming onto the front straight and ended the day in the wall. After scoring just two top-10 finishes so far this year, Red Bull Racing and Speed have to be left wanting for more. There are still a few races remaining in the season and the team has shown that it has pace, but can they end the year on a high note?