By Pete Pistone
BANK OF AMERICA 500 RECAP
Matt Kenseth has made a career of flying under the radar while being successful.
That description pretty much sums up his Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Despite winning the Bank of America 500, Kenseth’s story wasn’t completely unnoticed but was definitely the second biggest of the night.
Jimmie Johnson’s hard crash with 25 laps to go and how the ensuing 34th place finish may have ended his sixth straight title quest was the headline story.
Johnson’s violent wreck into the backstretch wall after losing control of his car racing for the seventh spot stunned the Charlotte crowd of over 100,000. It wasn’t until he first crawled from his battered racecar and the subsequently walked out of the infield care center thankfully uninjured did the ramifications of what happened start to sink into the Chase picture.
After crawling back to within three points of the lead with his Kansas win a week ago, Johnson suddenly now finds himself in eighth place, a whopping 34 markers behind Carl Edwards with only five races to go.
“We just have to keep racing,” Johnson said after limping slightly out of the care center. “That’s all there is to it. There’s five races left, and a lot can happen in five races.”
Much has been made about how Johnson not dominating this season or the Chase has helped NASCAR gain more awareness and exposure. Many believe a more wide open playoff run without Johnson pulling away to an easy sixth straight title would be better for the sport in overall interest.
Those folks are about to get their wish.
Johnson will now have to write the ultimate chapter to his championship legacy and put together one of the all-time come backs in NASCAR history.
For what it’s worth, his fellow competitors aren’t ready to write Johnson out yet.
“It can happen to any of us, so obviously the more points we can get on the guys in the Chase the better, but that can happen to anyone,” said Edwards. “He could go on a tear and be leading the points in three to four weeks. That could happen, too. So I don’t ever count him out.”
Whether he’s successful or not there’s one certainty – Johnson’s performance over the next five races will be anything but under the radar.
Nearly pulled off a worst to first story but was forced to come up one position short of ending his Sprint Cup Series career October drought. But Busch remained firmly in the championship hunt with his performance and may have provided his team with just the dose of confidence and momentum it had been lacking in the early going of the playoffs.
Kahne is making a habit out of running upfront and challenging for wins despite not being a factor in the championship. Made a tremendous come back late in Saturday night’s race to come home with another impressive Top 5 finish and stay in the picture as a potential race winner before the season runs out.
Somehow managed to finish sixth for a second straight week despite a multitude of problems not in the least of which an bad handling car. But Harvick remained squarely in the title fight trailing Carl Edwards by a mere five points and heading to Talladega, where he has been a dominant force in the last two seasons.
A rough weekend all the way around for Keselowski who qualified 26th and was stuck in the middle of the field all night long. A strange turn of events for the Blue Deuce team after a strong showing at Charlotte in May and a good run at the 1.5-mile in Kansas last Sunday. Keselowski’s Cinderella story may be coming to an end after Saturday night.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Even the most loyal Junior fan has to see his chances at winning a championship are over after his dismal night in Charlotte. Earnhardt had a middle of the pack car to begin with and had things compounded by a loose wheel and return trip to pit road in the closing stages. About all Earnhardt can do in the final five races of the year is throw complete caution to the wind and shoot for victories since points are meaningless at this point.
His violent crash handed Johnson a 34th place finish, the worst Chase result since he was credited with a 39th at Texas two years ago when he was involved in an early incident with Sam Hornish Jr. Johnson sunk 35 points out of the lead and now has the biggest challenge of his championship reign ahead in the final five races of the season.
(Choice comments and communications from drivers and crew chiefs)
"Go ahead and cross your fingers and rub your lucky charms. That's about it right here." – Kurt Busch
"We'll get it back, we'll get it back. We've got plenty of time. We're plenty fast." – Greg Biffle after going a lap down
"I'd like to disassemble the front suspension and throw it in the lake." – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"I don't know what the hell to tell you." – Jeff Gordon to crew chief Alan Gustafson on his early race problems
"That's a reminder to hold on to everything.'' – Carl Edwards to his crew after watching Brian Vickers drag a jack out of his pit stall on an early pit stop
On a scale of one to five "Pistone Pistons" I’ll give Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 a three. The early going was pretty uneventful and the night had the look of yet another fuel mileage strategy race. But the latter stages were filled with side by side racing after several restarts and tremendous drama regarding the championship picture in the aftermath of Johnson’s hard crash and the come back performances by Busch and Harvick in particular. Like most sports events it’s how things finish that matters and the Charlotte race provided a very memorable ending.
DOWN THE ROAD
What most believe to be the biggest wild card of the championship race is on deck next Sunday with the Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. But there’s another new wrinkle to the restrictor plate race in the form of new rules implemented by NASCAR. Larger restrictor plates and a tweak of the engine cooling system were put into play by the sanctioning body in an effort to break up the two-car tandems that have infiltrated racing at Talladega and Daytona. Based on a recent survey at Daytona, the majority of fans don’t like the new style racing. So the guessing game is on regarding how the new policies will impact the competition – and in turn the Chase picture.
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