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McMurray, Johnson Among First Chase Eliminations

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DOVER, Del. – For four, it’s over in Dover.

The 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup has eliminated its first four drivers following the AAA 400. Sunday’s 400-mile event shook up the Chase standings as drivers needing big days to advance pulled through. As they did, those who couldn’t afford any additional mistakes have been left moving onto 2016.

@KevinHarvick entered the day as the biggest Chase storyline. The defending champion faced a near must-win situation after Chicago and New Hampshire left him in a 23-point deficit. Harvick made it look easy by dominating for 355 laps led after initially taking the lead on Lap 24.

Also advancing into the Contender Round after entering the weekend on the outside looking in is @KyleBusch. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver didn’t have near as tall a task as Harvick did, but the No. 18 Interstate Batteries team left little to chance by finishing second and jumping back into title contention.

Harvick and Busch will join 10 others moving onto Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega. Those who are not begin with @JamieMcMurray, who finished fourth and lost a tiebreaker with @DaleJr. for the final Chase spot in the second round.

Considered one of the feel-good stories of the Chase, McMurray made the Chase for the first time but before Dover failed to earn a top-10 finish in the first two races.

“We were driving so hard those last few laps, and it’s just hard to make up any ground. And it seemed like our car was maybe better on stickers,” McMurray explained. “We haven’t run this well, honestly. We talked earlier today about that. So, I’m thrilled with our performance today. It’s frustrating that we weren’t able to make it to the next round, but it was a good day for the Nature Made car. We just needed one more point.”

The surprise elimination from the first round will be six-time series champion @JimmieJohnson, who finished 41st after a rear axle seal broke. Johnson spent 36 laps in the garage and watched as his hopes to compete for a seventh championship disappeared. By the checkered flag, Johnson came up 12 points short of advancing.

“Definitely disappointed. It’s tough having a very inexpensive axle seal be the culprit and take your championship hopes away. It’s racing. I’ve had mechanical (failures) take me out of championships growing up that led to some success for myself and I’m sure helped me with a championship or two,” Johnson said. “It’s part of racing. It just shows how critical everything is on a race team.”

A 25th place finish on Sunday afternoon also sealed the fate of Paul Menard from Richard Childress Racing. Menard, also making his first Chase appearance, hoped to follow in the footsteps of teammate Ryan Newman from last season, but failed to find consistency in the opening round of the Chase. In the first three races, Menard finished no better than 15th and was 23 points out after Dover.

The fourth and final eliminated driver was @ClintBowyer, who has experienced a little bit of everything this season. The argument could be made Bowyer’s Chase was finished following Chicago, not only because he finished 19th, but the Michael Waltrip Racing team was also issued a 25 point penalty with crew chief Billy Scott being suspended for three weeks. Although the team appealed – and lost – Bowyer finished 26th at New Hampshire and 14th at Dover, which would not be good enough.

“Our 5-hour ENERGY Toyota was good today – I’d say a top-five car. We just had some bad luck with that loose wheel early on,” Bowyer said. “We got two laps down, but were able to make those up. No one had anything for that 4 (Kevin Harvick) though.

“Real proud of everyone at MWR for all their hard work to get us in the Chase, just sorry we weren’t able to go to the next round.”

The Contender Round begins Saturday, October 10, at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

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