First four to fall today in inaugural elimination race for NASCAR’s Chase

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There is some history that you want to make. And then there’s some history you want absolutely nothing to deal with.

For four of the 16 Chase for the Sprint Cup contenders, the latter will be their fate at the end of today’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway – the finale in the Chase’s Challenger Round and the first-ever elimination race under the new format for NASCAR’s post-season.

As crazy as things got during last weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the Monster Mile could yield even more insanity as championship hopes receive new life and are snuffed out over the course of this afternoon’s race.

We all talk about how every athlete can only focus on the things he/she can control. But with an advance bubble this packed, such an imperative is going to be tough to follow.

Things are especially uncomfortable for everyone from eighth-place Carl Edwards all the way down the Chase Grid. You probably know the score by now: Edwards and Matt Kenseth are just eight points over the cutoff, while A.J. Allmendinger (+7), Kasey Kahne (+6) and Ryan Newman (+6) have even thinner margins for error.

And should any of them stumble today, those currently outside the Top 12 that will advance on to the Contender Round – Denny Hamlin (-6), Greg Biffle (-6), Kurt Busch (-8), and Aric Almirola (-10) – will have their opportunity to effectively extend their season another three races.

Some of the bubble drivers enter today by seemingly focusing more on the opportunity than the pressure. Allmendinger, for instance, was expected to be easy pickings for elimination yet he currently sits on the good side of the cutoff – albeit barely.

“No one really expected us to be here anyway, and to have a shot at making it to the next round,” he said Friday. “So, I’m just going to go out there and give it everything I have.”

Others, like Edwards and Hamlin, have acknowledged the pressure. During a test session earlier this week at Texas Motor Speedway, Edwards predicted today’s race to be “insane” while Hamlin has dubbed it the most important race of his Sprint Cup career.

That’s no doubt music to the ears of NASCAR CEO Brian France and his team, all of whom have doggedly searched for the key to bringing the sport back to its early-2000s glory.

They’re hoping that this latest iteration of the Chase, with three elimination races ultimately leading to a winner-take-all fight among four drivers at Homestead, will be just that.

As I touched upon in January, the other sports have a true “Game 7” playoff environment where drama reigns supreme as entire seasons of hard work threaten to get erased and underdogs stake their claim against the big boys. This is what France and Co. want.

Today, they just might get it.

Joe Gibbs Racing has Kyle Busch relatively safe at 28 points over the cutoff, but could see their other two pilots, Kenseth and Hamlin, eliminated. If Roush Fenway Racing’s duo of Edwards and Biffle falter, RFR may be knocked out of the Chase entirely.

On the other hand, how neat would it be if the Chase’s resident underdogs, Allmendinger and Almirola, somehow managed to crack the Contender Round with clutch drives today?

Whereas the regular season finale at Richmond – pretty much a de facto elimination race – proved disappointingly anti-climactic, something tells me we won’t have that problem today in Delaware.

Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.