Race Capsule: Chasers Kenseth, Keselowski, and Hamlin fight at Charlotte after some race won by some guy
Flag to Flag: Saturday's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway did not disappoint in delivering drama. I was lucky enough to get to take it in from the PA announcer's booth for the track's enormous Speedway TV and seeing it in person was quite the treat. Kevin Harvick finally closed out a race, taking his third win of 2014 - his first in six months - by leading six times for 162 of the 334 laps on the 1.5-mile track. The events spread through the race built up to major flashes of frustration after. Kyle Busch (5th) started on the pole, again breaking a track record, led three time times for 41 laps, but lost it to Jeff Gordon (2nd), who had the best car in the race's early stages and led 74 laps. After a competition caution on lap 25 because of rain earlier in the day and then another on lap 97 for Clint Bowyer's (43rd) blown engine, Jamie McMurray (3rd) took two tires and gained the lead. But Harvick took it for the first time on lap 105 and was the car to beat from then on out. Different pit strategies of two tires or not pitting cycled different leaders to the front, including Denny Hamlin (9th), who took the lead from Brad Keselowski (16th) on a lap 272 restart and led 22 laps. They, Matt Kenseth (19th), and fellow Chase driver Jimmie Johnson (17th) took two tires to gain position and that's where the drama got big. Kenseth swung high to pass Keselowski three wide on the front straightaway, but Keselowski didn't give him the room and Kenseth hit the wall. He had been about 19th place all race long and ended up dropping to that point after the contact. Harvick took the lead back from Hamlin on lap 294, but green flag pit stops cycled several different drivers to the lead in the closing laps. Drivers tried to stretch their fuel tanks and hope a caution flag would keep them on the lead lap and no driver in that group needed a break more than Dale Earnhardt Jr. (20th) - more on that later. But as soon as those drivers finished their stops, Brian Vickers (37th) blew an engine with just five laps to go. Harvick had regained the lead and only had two laps of green to hold it when the caution ended - and that he did. Harvick's intense, smoky burnout was seemingly a release of pent up frustration over so many near-wins that fell away through the year. But as Harvick blew out his right-rear tire in celebration, conflict flared up on the cool-down lap. Hamlin and Keselowski made contact on one of the late restarts, prompting Hamlin to brake check Keselowski as they peeled off of Turn 4 and headed for the pits. Keselowski retaliated by stabbing the nose of his car into the left-rear quarter panel of Hamlin's. Then Keselowski saw Kenseth as he entered the pits. Keselowski says that Kenseth hit him under yellow after their contact on that restart late in the race. So Keselowski rammed Kenseth in the driver's door as they pulled onto pit road. That contact sent them both forward toward Tony Stewart's (21st) sitting car. An angry Stewart saw Keselowski in his rear view mirror, so he threw the No. 14 into reverse and rammed Keselowski's No. 2, destroying its nose. But that wasn't all. As the cars pulled in the garage, Hamlin and his crew confronted Keselowski's, with both drivers being held back from the other. Hamlin says Keselowski was showing his frustration by doing some burnouts in the garage and Hamlin reportedly threw a towel at the 2012 champion, after they yelled at each other. Then as that cooled down and Keselowski walked between his team's hauler and another, Kenseth chased him down and pounced on him, putting him in a headlock. The 2 and 20 teams brawled in that "alley way" with No. 2 crew chief Paul Wolfe trying to hold people back from his driver. Kenseth said in an interview just after that he was especially mad that Keselowski rammed him so hard, after he'd already taken his window net down and was unfastening his safety equipment. The contact that Kenseth and Keselowski had on the track hurt their results and their place in the Chase points standings. The pressure of the Chase is finally cracking some of these teams. NASCAR likely won't announce penalties, if any, until later. The top 10 in the race were Harvick, Gordon, Jamie McMurray (solid contender most of the race), Joey Logano (points leader who got four tires late and made up a bunch of spots on final restart), Ky. Busch, rookie Kyle Larson (chased down leader Ky. Busch in the late going and raced remarkably yet again in the high line), Ryan Newman (got spun in the lap 247 scrum between Logano and Danica Patrick, but came back), Carl Edwards (finished better than he should have - getting the free pass on lap 222), Hamlin, and Kasey Kahne (struggled all night, but gained spots on last restart). The holes got dug deeper for the drivers outside the top eight in the points that need to be 8th or better after Talladega next week. Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. are both tied in the cellar of the 12 drivers in the playoffs, each 26 points behind 8th-place Kahne. Then Keselowski sits 19 points out of 8th and Kenseth is only one point out of the Chase cutoff. Harvick's ticket for the Eliminator Round of the Chase has been punched, so he joins Logano in the stress-free club at the stress-inducing Talladega race Sunday. Only 25 points separate 2nd-in-points Ky. Busch from Kahne in 8th. Charlotte Motor Speedway offered great racing throughout the pack and torqued the pressure up enough to send the intensity over the top. It was a crazy night under the lights.
RaceTweet: Kevin Harvick finally closes it out in Charlotte and Kenseth goes all WWE on Keselowski, as both drivers' Chase hopes fade.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Kevin Harvick - He finally followed through and got his first win since Darlington in April, leading the most laps and taking the lead back each time someone else got it. Hellooooo Eliminator Round.
North Korean Missile Dud: Jimmie Johnson - Johnson won the Coca-Cola 600 in May from the pole, but was nowhere near winning form Saturday night. He started 21st and fought hard to finally get inside the top 10. A heated exchange between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus about how to fix the car, in which Johnson wouldn't even say if it was loose or tight but just that the car felt like it was going to wreck, showed that their tension about their lack of speed is building up. Johnson did get near the front on Knaus' two-tire strategy call in the late going, but then pitted to get four tires and restarted outside the top 15 with just two laps to go. He finished 17th and pretty much has to win Talladega next week to make the next round of the Chase.
You Don't Have to Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Ryan Newman - When Joey Logano spun Danica Patrick (finished 26th, three laps down) on lap 247, Newman got caught up in it, but spun out of the way and avoided major damage. Luke Lambert and the crew made adjustments and Newman drove his tail off to finish 7th. He's not been a contender really all year, but Newman's solid runs of late leave him 4th in the standings, 21 points out of 9th.
Ghost Driver: Trevor Bayne - Saturday's race was supposed to be Bayne's Sprint Cup debut in his 2015 ride: the No. 6 Advocare Ford for Roush Fenway Racing. The team needed to qualify 36th or better in Thursday's knockout qualifying, because that car did not make an attempt this season and had no provisionals to make the race. They couldn't get it figured out and timed in only 38th, making them the only ones to miss the race. Bayne has struggled mightily with the entire RFR bunch this year. But while Carl Edwards in Sprint Cup and Chris Buescher in Nationwide have both found some promise and some good runs, Bayne has not. 2015 likely will be a long rookie campaign for the 2011 Daytona 500 winner.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Justin Allgaier - Allgaier has struggled quite a bit as a rookie driving for the small HScott Motorsports team, but Saturday was his best finish of the season. Allgaier stayed on the lead lap most of the race. Crew chief Steve Addington made Allgaier one of the last drivers to pit before the caution flag in the final laps, so Allgaier led two laps. He finished 15th and had a lot to smile about, having placed a head of several really good cars.
Wheel of Misfortune: Dale Earnhardt Jr. - A blown tire took him out of contention as he led a week ago at Kansas. This week, Earnhardt Jr. could have made some gains on his Chase points hole, as he was running very well at Charlotte. But he had to make extended, extra pit stops during two different caution sequences to fix a broken shifter. Not having that shifter working right hurt Earnhardt Jr. on restarts and getting in and out of the pits, so he eventually fell down a lap and was pretty much stuck there the rest of the night. Just like his teammate Johnson, Earnhardt Jr. pretty much needs to win Talladega to advance in the Chase. He won the Daytona 500, but hasn't won at Talladega since the October race in 2004. He was in the thick of a title chase then and needs a win this Sunday to stay in the thick of one now.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Chase drivers retaliating - Neither Matt Kenseth or Brad Keselowski entered Saturday's race with wiggle room in the points. But both leave Charlotte for Talladega in an even bigger hole. Maybe Keselowski could have left Kenseth more room and then not rammed him on pit road. And maybe Kenseth shouldn't have tried to pass Keselowski in a hole that was barely there on the racetrack and then swipe his car under caution. The damage from their encounters hurt them big time in the points. Mix in Hamlin, who isn't in as much peril, but was very much involved in the drama and the Chase and there are three drivers who need to keep their noses clean, who now have bullseyes on them. Talladega is a place where trust and partnership with foes is key and the following race at Martinsville is a perfect place for payback. These guys made some enemies and that's the last problem they need.
Georgia On My Mind: Rookie Chase Elliott created some Peach State excitement by winning the Nationwide Series pole for Friday's Drive for the Cure 300 presented by Blue Cross/Blue Shield of North Carolina. He led 66 laps, more than anyone else, but struggled on restarts and finished 8th, in a race won by Brad Keselowski. Elliott did manage to extend his points lead to 42 over teammate Regan Smith, who finished 11th. Ty Dillon crashed on lap 74, finishing 34th and falling to 5th in points and virtually out of the title race. Only three races remain. Ryan Sieg did a solid job in the NNS race, finishing on the lead lap in 13th. The Sprint Cup race saw tough trails for the Georgia drivers. Reed Sorenson had a spiffy-looking lime green and hot pink Zing Zang Chevy, started it 30th, and finished four laps down in 27th. David Ragan really struggled in the CSX - Play It Safe Ford, starting 34th and finishing 34th in car 34. Ragan holds a six point lead on Sorenson for 33rd in points.
NNS RaceTweet: Keselowski struggles early but wins NNS race at CMS. Elliott leads by over a full race's points with just three races to go.