Round three in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship takes place this weekend at Dover International Speedway.
After finishing second at both Chicago and New Hampshire, Jimmie Johnson is atop the championship standings, as he holds only a one-point advantage over Brad Keselowski. Denny Hamlin's win last Sunday at New Hampshire moved him to within seven points of the lead.
Dover, also known as "The Monster Mile," could be the turning point in Johnson's quest for a sixth Sprint Cup Series title. The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has won four of the last seven races there.
In June, Johnson avoided a 12-car wreck in the early stages of the race and led 289 of 400 laps to claim his seventh win at Dover. It moved him into a tie with NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for most all-time victories at this one-mile, concrete-surfaced racetrack.
"So far it's been a great track for us," Johnson said. "The thing there that is tough and we have been very fortunate to miss it, if something happens, we know it's a self-cleaning track, and you get torn up pretty bad because you are going so fast."
Dover is one of several tracks on the Chase schedule where Johnson has been dominant. Johnson has also been strong at Charlotte, Martinsville and Phoenix. His biggest concern in the Chase, though, is Talladega on Oct. 7.
"We have tracks that have been great to the 48 for a lot of years; tracks that we were very successful at in the spring events," he said. "The one hanging out there that has me concerned, is the same for everybody else, is Talladega. I haven't finished a plate race this year...But outside of 'Dega and the unknown at that track, there's a lot of tracks for this 48 team that I'm very optimistic."
Johnson won the Chase race at Dover in consecutive seasons from 2009-10. He finished second there one year ago.
While Johnson maybe dreading Talladega, Hamlin is worried about Dover. Hamlin considers Dover as one of his most troublesome tracks. His most recent finishes there show it. He has just two top-10 finishes in his last 10 races there.
"It's unlike any racetrack that we go to all year," Hamlin said. "There is no high-banked, one-mile track other than Dover. It's concrete on top of that, which makes it even more difficult. If the track was paved, I'm sure I would run a lot better there, because I have such a good feel on the pavement. But the concrete surface has kind of thrown me for a loop over the course of my career."
Hamlin has yet to win a Sprint Cup race at Dover. His best finish there is fourth, which came in the 2007 and '10 spring events. Hamlin does have two Nationwide Series victories at this track.
Keselowski has also struggled at Dover. His best finish in his five races there is 12th, which came earlier this season. He placed 20th at Dover one year ago.
"There is no question that Dover is probably our weakest track in the Chase," Keselowski said. "We've had some good, not great, cars there in the past. I let a top-10 finish slip away there last year when I stalled the car on pit road late in the race. So we know we can get a solid finish, but we're going up there to win the race.
"I know (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe) has really targeted Dover for the last several weeks, really putting a lot of emphasis on it. I'm confident we can go up there and keep ourselves in the championship conversation."
Keselowski began the Chase by winning at Chicago. He finished sixth at New Hampshire.
While seven points separate the top-three drivers, Tony Stewart, the defending series champion, heads to Dover with a 10-point deficit. Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer are both 15 points behind. Dale Earnhardt Jr. trails by 26.
Dover has been a difficult track for Earnhardt Jr. as well. Earnhardt Jr. had finished outside the top-10 in eighth consecutive races there before snapping that streak with a fourth-place run in June. He won at Dover in Sept. 2001.
"Dover's a tough track, a track that I don't have the greatest track record on over the last several races, although we did finish in the top-five earlier this year," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I got good confidence going in. We're just going to try to maximize our opportunity on the racetrack."
Eight through 12th in the Chase standings right now are: Kevin Harvick (-31), Greg Biffle (-33), Martin Truex Jr. (-34), Matt Kenseth (-35) and Jeff Gordon (-45).
Forty-eight teams are on the preliminary entry list for the AAA 400.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, September 30. Race: AAA 400. Site: Dover International Speedway. Track: one-mile oval. Start time: 2 p.m.(ET). Laps: 400. Miles: 400. 2011 Winner: Kurt Busch. Television: ESPN. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.