CHARLOTTE, N.C. – For much of the Bank of America 500 Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it looked as if a change in the Chase for the Sprint Cup points lead was in order.
Then a caution for debris came out with 27 laps remaining, placing what seemed a probable victory for Jimmie Johnson into dire jeopardy at first and into terminal illness in the end. Had Johnson been able to continue leading at the time, he almost certainly would have clinched a bonus point for leading most laps in the race and, according to Matt Kenseth, another three bonus points for winning.
That would have given Johnson the points lead over Kenseth heading into next Sunday’s race at Talladega.
All of which left Kenseth with a smile on his face after an eventful evening during which the driver of the No. 20 Toyota overcame an ill-handling race car early on.
“I think the 48 had us all night,” Kenseth said.
Johnson was leading when the final caution came out, but he emerged out of the pits in third after he and crew chief Chad Knaus elected to take on four fresh tires. He was lined up behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne on the inside lane for the ensuing restart, with Jeff Gordon on the outside of the front row next to Kahne.
Both Kahne and Gordon gained their track position by electing to take on only two tires on the final pit stop.
“There at the end, I’m sure if Jimmie would have taken two (tires), he would have stormed off and kicked everybody’s butt,” said Kyle Busch, Kenseth’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing. “But they took four. They gambled on the soft side and it bit them a little bit.”
When Johnson appeared to spin his tires on the restart, it only compounded the problems for the No. 48 Chevrolet team. He ended up dropping all the way back to seventh before racing his way up to fourth by the checkered flag.
“(Kahne) didn’t get the best restart. That and the combination of dirty air, something with that combo got me off the bottom (of the race track) and a couple cars got into the side of me,” Johnson said. “If we could have come out second (on the pit stop), which was really close with the No. 24 (car of Gordon), and restarted on the front row I think it would have been a much different result for us. But it didn’t happen.”
Meanwhile, Kenseth lined up in fourth behind Gordon on the outside of the second row and had an excellent final restart.
“I couldn’t do any more than I did there at the end. I think I got the best possible restart I could get,” Kenseth said. “We got to Turn 3 and I think we were in second place. Kasey had worse tires on than I did, and Brad did a really good job. He did all he could do except wreck us to get by. He did everything he needed to do to win the race. I just didn’t have enough to hang on the outside of him. That was just all I had.”
Kenseth’s perseverance paid off as he struggled to keep pace with the better cars earlier in the race.
“This track, especially, there is a certain feel that I look for. And if I don’t have it, I can’t go very fast and I can’t pass anybody,” Kenseth said. “Until the third adjustment, that’s what was happening. Then (crew chief Jason Ratcliff) found something that really woke it up. It made the car happy and it made me happy, and we really started making up some ground.”
By making up that ground during long green-flag runs on the track and then having the final caution flag fly to fatally slow Johnson’s momentum, Kenseth was able to escape with the Chase lead.
“At the end of the day, (the last yellow flag) probably helped us since the 48 probably was going to win without a caution,” Kenseth said. “I ended up finishing in front of him. I think we finished in about the same spot we would have without the caution, but I guess if you look at the points it ended up better for us this way.”
By Joe Menzer - Special to NASCAR Wire Service''