Resurgent Johnson wins Charlotte ahead of several Chasers' doomsdays
Jimmie Johnson's 78th career win,
Quick Shakedown: Chase driver Kevin Harvick (finished 38th) captured his first pole of the season Thursday and led the first 12 laps, before ceding the top spot to arguably the day's best car. Rookie and Chase driver Chase Elliott (33rd) started 3rd and led 105 laps handily, before a lap 260 restart changed the whole race.
After a round of pit stops, Chase driver Austin Dillon (32nd) took two tires and restarted on the front row, after running mid-pack all day. The gamble looked smart, but Martin Truex Jr. (13th) tried to push Dillon and turned him sideways in front of the field. The bottleneck damaged 12 cars
Busch and Kyle Larson (5th) each had flat tires and lost laps early, but used the yellow flags to catch back up to the leaders.
Harvick was a top-5 fighter, but his No. 4 crew could not re-fire their Chevrolet after some sort of ECU problem shut it off.
Chase driver Joey Logano (36th) looked strong, before scraping the wall. The No. 22 crew repaired that ride and kept Logano on the lead lap, but the damage cut a tire and sent Logano into the wall and into the garage. The team made extensive repairs and got him back on track to gain one more spot.
All this flux in the 12-driver Chase field left the fast No. 48 of Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin's No. 11 (30th) in a fight for the lead. Hamlin led 52 laps and was running 2nd to
The final restart saw Johnson hold off Chase driver Matt Kenseth (2nd) to take the checkered flag.
Top 10: Johnson; Kenseth (drove through the field twice and finished higher than he ran); Kasey Kahne (fast all day, even faster when other contenders fell); Ryan Newman (first top-5 since Kentucky in July); Larson (rode the rim from a lap down to a great finish); Ky. Busch (showed the fight needed to win a championship); Brad Keselowski (finished close to where he ran most of the race, after poor starting spot); Kurt Busch (struggled in the first half, rose to the occasion late); Tony Stewart (started in top 5, got lapped, came back); Jamie McMurray (drove like a bat out of hell after getting damage in the Dillon wreck).
The points: Johnson, of course, leads the points and advances to the Round of 8. Just eight points separate the five drivers that had trouble Sunday, from 8th-in-the-standings Hamlin to 12th-place Kevin Harvick. Hamlin trails 7th-place Truex Jr. by 16 points, so the fight for the 8th and final transfer spot could be magnificent to watch at this weekend's Kansas Speedway race and especially at Talladega Superspeedway after that.
RaceTweet: Luck snatches defeat from the hands of victory yet again for Chase Elliott, as the now-beastly again Jimmie Johnson crushes the field at Charlotte. #FiveChasersCursed
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Jimmie Johnson - As well as Elliott ran and as much as he could have won, Johnson led the most laps on the day (155) and held a charging herd at bay on the restart with 18 laps to go. Finally, he and his crew didn't make any pit road mistakes.
North Korean Missile Dud: Kevin Harvick - The main chink in the No. 4 team's armor has been slow pit stops, not lack of speed or mechanical gremlins. The latter shut off the Busch Chevy and put Harvick in a precarious position heading forward. He has dug out of this hole before, but no one expected this freak problem to knock him out. The good news is that four other Chase drivers had catastrophic days.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Kyle Busch - Busch barely edges teammate Matt Kenseth in this category. Kenseth started the race at the rear for unapproved adjustments, made up 20 spots, lost some of that when he sped on pit road, then finished 2nd. Busch, however, started near the front, pitted with a flat tire under green, raced into the free pass spot, drove into the top 10, got damage, stayed on the lead lap, and drove back into the top 10. Busch wins (this award).
Ghost Driver: Carl Edwards - The only reason Edwards got any looks Sunday, was because he got damaged in the Dillon wreck. He had a decent
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Michael McDowell - The late cautions allowed the No. 95 team of McDowell to stay caught up with the lead cars and pass some of them that had damage. McDowell's under-funded Circle Sport/Leavine Family Racing Team finished 14th. That was McDowell's best run since Richmond (12th) and second-best of the season. Good job at a tough track for small teams.
Wheel of Misfortune: Alex Bowman and Casey Mears- Bowman, the young substitute driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevy started 2nd (!!) in the Bank of America 500 and ran solidly in the top 5, unafraid to race hard with the seasoned Sprint Cup veterans. But a cut tire on lap 61 shot Bowman up the track and into the lapped car of Casey Mears. They finished 42nd and 43rd, respectively. Goodyear Tires struggled
Jimmie Johnson's Golden Horseshoe: Martin Truex Jr. - Truex Jr. took the blame for triggering the huge restart wreck that eliminated several cars, including Chasers Dillon and Elliott. But late in the race, the No. 78 team had a horrid pit stop (almost 17 seconds), then Truex Jr. developed clutch issues that stunted his final stop and hurt him on the last restart. And with the bad luck of the other Chase drivers, Truex Jr. still held 13th at the end of the race. The racing gods forgave him.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: The tide against Cup drivers running Xfinity Series races is rising. NASCAR already has eliminated 2015 Sprint Cup Chase drivers from competing in the Championship Finales for both the Camping World Truck Series and the NXS. They need to do more. Kyle Larson absolutely whipped the NXS field Sunday evening, lapping all but about five cars before late cautions and wave-around drivers got Joey Logano out front for the win. This race was such a critical elimination race for the Chase drivers and five Cup drivers had double-duty scheduled. The race was scheduled for Friday, so competing in both cars would have helped the Cup drivers for their scheduled Saturday race.
Whether NASCAR limits the number of races each full-time Cup driver can run in lower series or what, the current system is broken and this brokenness overshadows the good racing of the series regulars - the young drivers who one day will be in Cup.
A full-time NXS driver has not won a Charlotte NXS race since 2009 - Mike Bliss took James Finch's No. 1 to Victory Lane. Marinate on that for a few minutes.
NXS RaceTweet: Kyle Larson almost laps the field at Charlotte and still loses to Joey Logano. TDillon, Poole, Sieg, BJones out of the Chase.
Georgia On My Mind: Nexxxxt. Chase Elliott's dominant day ended not of his own doing. He started the race in 3rd. David Ragan benefited from all the attrition to finish 23rd. Reed Sorenson had some issues, but also passed the wounded cars to place 28th.
Ryan Sieg's Chase hopes ended at Charlotte, but he did rebound from two laps down to finish 10th. His day took a dive when he missed his pit stall, but he was not fast enough to get inside the top 8 in points anyway.
Brandon Jones also struggled, but needed pretty much to win to have a shot to advance. Instead, he had trouble on pit road and placed 16th.
Garrett Smithley's underfunded team did not have enough tires to be competitive and still managed to finish 25th. And Chris Cockrum's No. 25 Remembering Captain Herb Emory Chevy had issues with the alternator; he spent time in the garage but returned and finished 35th.
Next: Both the Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series race at Kansas Speedway, another 1.5-mile track, but one that has eaten up some racecars since its repave. The NSCS runs Sunday at 2 p.m. on NBCSN and MRN. The NXS races Saturday at 4 p.m. on NBC and MRN. The Truck Series Chase resumes next Saturday at Talladega.