Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Chase Coverage: Charlotte Wrap-Up Report


While Chase drivers Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson battled for second, spoiler Jamie McMurray
cruised to victory in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
(Geoff Burke/Getty Images)
Usually we don't hear "wild card" in the same sentence with Charlotte Motor Speedway, but that's exactly what happened during Saturday's Bank of America 500. NASCAR's home track provided a race full of twists and turns.

We got the first spoiler of the Chase: Jamie McMurray, on the outside of the top 12 looking in, won his third race of the season, matching the number of wins he'd had from 2002 to 2009. 

It was a mix of fortunes for the Chase drivers themselves, some of whom experienced problems on the track or simply didn't contend. Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson spun early: one missed his chance to make history, while the other made a stunning recovery. Kyle Busch, who counted himself out of the Chase after his engine blew at California, rebounded with a dominating performance that left him finishing second. The younger Busch brother became the week's biggest mover in the Chase standings, jumping four spots to fifth.

Here's what our contributors had to say about the 12 Chase drivers and how they fared this weekend at Charlotte. 

1. Jimmie Johnson – Leader – Rebecca Kivak
After an early-race spin threatened to ruin his night and championship hopes, Jimmie Johnson rallied to finish third and maintain the points lead after Saturday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Johnson’s run helped him gain five points to give him a 41-point cushion over Denny Hamlin. The No. 48’s seamless recovery shows why this team has won four titles and why they very well may be on their way to a historic fifth.

Charlotte may be Johnson’s house, but the track had a few tricks up her sleeve for the four-time champion. The driver of the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet started 10th in Saturday’s event. But on lap 34, Johnson got loose and spun coming off turn 2. The incident was a flashback to the Coca-Cola 600 earlier this summer, where Johnson went for a spin in the exact same spot. This time Johnson didn’t hit anything and he emerged without any damage to the racecar.

But the track was not done with the No. 48 yet. After pitting for a flat tire from the spin, Johnson got another flat and had to pit a second time, causing him to restart in the 37th position.

Despite these obstacles, the crew worked to improve the car’s handling during the long green-flag runs that followed, and Johnson steadily worked his way through the field. By lap 123 Johnson was running in 13th when Kasey Kahne and Sam Hornish brought out the night’s fifth caution flag. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus elected to stay out on the track in order to gain position, which turned out to be the right move. Johnson restarted in fifth and by lap 189 he had passed Jamie McMurray for the top spot, leading for 15 laps. For the remainder of the race Johnson stayed in the top 5, crossing the finish line in the third position and bringing home his fourth top 3 in the first five Chase races.

“I’m so relieved,” Johnson admitted after the race. “It's amazing what goes through your mind when you're sliding sideways on the back straightaway. I saw my hard work for the year and dreams of being a five-time champion go away, and fortunately I got the car turned away from the inside wall. At that point kind of scared me straight. Like, okay, just stay smooth, we can salvage a decent finish out of today. … I know we can get a good finish out of this if we can keep our composure and we did.

“Tonight is a night that reminds me of the last four years and what made this team champions. I hope that tonight's performance leads us to a championship.”

2. Denny Hamlin – (-41) – Holly Machuga
Denny Hamlin finished fourth in Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was an impressive finish for Hamlin, who has struggled at this track in the past, this being his first top-5 and best finish at Charlotte.

Starting in 23rd, Denny found himself close to the rear, but he was headed to the front soon after the green flag dropped. He is working to achieve his goal of top-10s the entire season. So far, he has been extremely close. His last five finishes since the Chase started are second, ninth, 12th, eighth and fourth at Charlotte. That is an average of 7. Hamlin and the No. 11 FedEx team are right on track.

As far as the 41 points between Jimmie Johnson and Denny? He's not worried; "[Johnson's] going to do what he's going to do and run up front," Hamlin said. "We just have to do what we have to do and try to win races."

That is all that Denny Hamlin and the FedEx team can do. Win races, stay at the top and keep their eyes on the prize awaiting them at Miami-Homestead in five weeks.

3. Kevin Harvick – (-77) – Amber Arnold
Kevin Harvick rolled off 8th in Saturday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. For a team who hasn’t exactly qualified well all year, starting 24th wasn’t something they couldn’t easily overcome. The only issue was they were in Charlotte and that track is notoriously a bad one for the 29 team.

Whether it was a night of just enough going wrong for everyone else or just enough going right for the Shell/Penzoil team, the 8th-place finish felt like a win to Harvick, who later tweeted, “Lost my mind early in the race then we got it together for a solid day.”

While not much ground was gained on the leader, not too much was lost coming out of this weekend for the 29 team. Harvick still has the third-place spot just 77 points back.

4. Jeff Gordon – (-156) – Genevieve Cadorette
Jeff Gordon was on fire Saturday night at the Bank of America 500 hosted at Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina. He walked on stage holding his daughter Ella when he was introduced at driver introductions and addressed the audience. The crowd cheered for him loudly, which made it difficult to hear what he was actually saying, but I know he told the fans to have a fun race and a good night (or something close to that).

Engines were fired up and the pace car escorted the NASCAR boys around the track until the green flag dropped. Gordon flew ahead of the guys without hesitation, making it difficult for inexperienced photographers to take a picture or a video of him while he raced. After the first pit stop he started to fall behind but stayed in the top two; he moved to third and held on for several laps.

After a long and steady pace, he started to fall behind and he was then hit with the misfortune of losing power; after a battery change he went back out but realized his alternator failed. He pitted and headed back to the garage. When he returned, he started in 17th but his luck changed again when he was hit with a speeding penalty on pit road.

He started the weekend out positive, but ended the night negatively. He finished 23rd and although he still remains in the top 4 in the Chase to the Sprint Cup in Homestead this November, he fell behind 156 points.

5. Kyle Busch – (-177) – Lindi Bess

After an exciting week on the home front with the grand opening of the new KBM, Kyle Busch took the wheel of the #18 M&M’s Toyota Camry at Saturday’s Bank of America 500. After his DNF in California, Kyle has given up any hope of winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.

Kyle started the race in the sixth position with a hunger to finally win at a the 1.5-mile track. The team battled through setbacks throughout the race, one of which was due to his throttle sticking. It was to the point that he had to shut down the engine as he entered a couple of turns to keep from crashing. But the M&M’s Camry never fell out of the Top 20. His average race position was second; he led 217 laps, the high for the race.
On lap 263 Kyle was leading the #48 car by seven car-lengths. At times it looked as though it were the Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch Show. With 20 laps to go and a caution, this is how Kyle responded after the race:


"We had a great race, one of our best races we've had all year. That's the way we're supposed to run. It still doesn't matter how good we run; we still figure out how to give it up. Or I figure out how to give it up, I should say.”

About that final caution:

"..........I don't know what the caution was for but apparently a mouse ran across the tracks."


Busch leaves Charlotte up four spots to fifth in the Cup standings. He is 177 points out of first-place, currently held by four-time champion Jimmie Johnson, and tied with the #14, Tony Stewart.

I love that the championship is really still undecided. Most feel that #48 is gonna take his fifth championship, but we;re seeing a lot of movement in the top 5. Many what-ifs are coming into play.

Next track is Martinsville, a 1/2-mile oval where Kyle has yet to visit Victory Lane. It'll be exciting to see if the #18 Camry can tame the "Pretty Paperclip," or if it's left wild for ROWDY's next visit.

6. Tony Stewart – (-177) – Unique Hiram
Charlotte Motor Speedway proved to be a thorn in the side for Tony Stewart and the #14 Office Depot/Old Spice team. An ill-handling racecar throughout the entire race coupled with two rough pit box entrances assisted in what was deemed to be a long night of struggles.

Stewart remained towards the back of the lead-lap cars for a majority of the evening while only cracking the top 20 once during this event. He survived and completed all 334 laps despite having car woes along with being clipped in the right rear quarter panel at the onset of a caution that his teammate Ryan Newman caused by spinning out on lap #2 of the race.

“It was just a comedy of errors,” Grubb said. “We evidently just missed it on the setup. Not really sure what happened. We just weren’t fast enough on restarts or anything. Then mid-run we could be OK, but by the end we had no track position. We had to fight to try to get track position all night and just never got it. Anytime we had a hope that we were getting somewhere, we got stuck in our pits two or three times, or missed our pit box or something. It was just a mess.”

Stewart started on the grid in the 29th position and finished the race in the 21stposition. As a result, he has now dropped to 6th in the Chase points standings, placing him 177 points between the current points leader Jimmie Johnson. Although this was a slight blow to the momentum that had been gained by this race team, they will still continue to fight in order to climb back into the top 5 and possibly make it to that top spot.

The next Chase race will be in Martinsville, Va., and there is sure to be another points shakeup at the conclusion of this race.

7. Carl Edwards – (-200) – Amanda Ebersole
We are officially halfway through the chase after the completion of Saturday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. For Carl Edwards the weekend was a mixed bag of results, ending up with a 12th place finish although he started the race in 2nd. Carl still sits 7th in the Chase standings, 200 points behind our current points leader, Jimmie Johnson.

Thursday, during first practice, Carl unloaded fast and topped the charts in first place. As practice progressed, the lap time of 28.845 ended up in 19th. Up next on Thursday was qualifying, and it went well. Carl went out late, 31st in the lineup and was so close to knocking Jeff Gordon off the pole. But his time of 28.205 ended up second, less than a second off the pole time. Happy hour on Friday was another high point when Carl finished with fastest time there as well.

On race day, Carl started second but handling was a major issue throughout the entire race. The car was tight, and the Aflac pit crew was trying to make the proper adjustments to free it up, but it seemed to get worse before getting better. Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne made the call to take two tires during a pit stop on lap 204, hoping to gain some track position, but the car did not handle well and again Carl fell back. On the final caution at lap 310, Edwards and Osborne debated the decision to take two or four tires but knew four was the way to go. Carl restarted in 19th place and had only 21 laps remaining to try and make it to the front. In the final laps Carl did manage to gain 7 spots and time just ran out. The checkered flag fell, with Jamie McMurray winning and Carl finishing in 12th.

8. Greg Biffle – (-225) – Stacie Ball
If you could not win the Bank of America 500, how would you want to finish? Would a top 5 make you happy after your engine blew up soon in the race before? I know for me I was happy with the results for Greg Biffle among all of the other drivers of Roush Fenway Racing.

After Saturday's race got under way, Biffle immediately began to pick up positions. The Scotch Blue 3M Ford was tight entering the corners and loose off; he was able to pick up two spots before a caution on lap 23 allowed him to pit for two tires and a minor air pressure adjustment. The decision to take two paid off and he restarted 13th on lap 28. 

The first round of green-flag pit stops began on lap 74. Biffle pitted for four tires and an air pressure adjustment. He was 16th on the board when the green-flag stops were complete on lap 86. During the next run, he made his way up to 12th and then picked up eight positions with another two-tire stop on lap 110.
On lap 118, he reported that the car had improved but was still loose on the bottom of turns 1 and 2. During a caution on lap 128, the team decided to make a more significant adjustment while Biffle was running sixth. Going into a second round of green-flag stops that began on lap 169, he was able to stay out and lead lap 177 for five bonus points. 

Biffle was running 11th when a caution on lap 203 allowed him to pit for two tires and a track bar adjustment.  He restarted second on lap 207 as several teams opted for four. He restarted fifth but quickly reported that the car was too tight and he began to lose positions.

On lap 246, Biffle had dropped back to 10th and stayed out during the next caution. He was able to pick up five positions during the next 20 laps and was running fifth when the final round of green-flag stops began on lap 290. Biffle pitted for four tires and fuel on lap 292 and was back in the fifth position when the green flag stops were complete.

On lap 308 there was a caution for debris and after several minutes of debate, Biffle and crew chief Greg Erwin opted to stay out. After the restart on lap 313, that appeared to be the right call as Biffle was able to stay ahead of the drivers who had pitted for tires and score his seventh top-five finish of the season.

“It was a really good night,” said Biffle. “The Scotch Blue 3M Ford Fusion ran really good. We didn’t qualify very well, so we had to work our way to the front. Then we made a pretty big change and had to restart all the way at the back and got all the way back into the top 5. I’m just real happy for Jamie McMurray. He used to drive for us and was short on wins, but he’s doing a great job.”

Biffle and the 3M team moved up to eighth in the point standings. They are 225 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson but only 48 points out of fifth. With five races left in the Chase, I really do not think he is out of it, it depends from race to race. Great job by Biffle, Erwin and the Pit Bulls in Charlotte!

9. Kurt Busch – (-237) – Katy Lindamood
Heading into Saturday’s race no driver had ever swept all three races at Charlotte Motor Speedway in one season. Seven had followed up a victory in the All-Star race with a win in the Coca-Cola 600, including Kurt Busch. After Busch’s disappointing day, the record still stands.

Busch’s woes began early in the race. On lap 23 the Miller Lite Dodge went for a spin. At the time Busch was in the 14th position and thought he was having an issue with his tires. By the time the green flag fell after the third caution of the night (for Johnson’s spin), Busch had fallen all the way back to 38th position where he continued to fight an ill-handling race car. Falling as far back as three laps down to the leader, Busch was able to salvage a 30th place finish, but in doing so dropped to ninth in points, essentially putting him out of contention for his second series title.

Following the race Busch said, “Steve (Addington, crew chief) threw everything we had at it tonight. We tried wedge, air pressure adjustments, you name it. I don't know if it was the new chassis we brought or what, something was just off.”

10. Jeff Burton – (-239) – Genna Short
He finished 15th at Loudon, 18th at Kansas, 23rd at Fontana and 20th at Charlotte. The 2010 Chase hasn’t been kind to Jeff Burton. He has just one top-10 finish, a second place at Dover, since the Chase began.

Burton’s night at Charlotte was not at all what the 31 team had hoped for. On lap 248, he spun, bringing out the eighth caution of the night. Although he led one lap during green-flag stops, it is not at all indicative of the rest of his run at the 1.5-mile track.

The 31 team’s recent history at Charlotte hasn’t proven to be ideal, but he had gone into this race with confidence. Unfortunately, all the confidence in the world couldn’t save the team’s abysmal night. He lost two spots in the standings and will head into Martinsville in 10th place.


11. Matt Kenseth – (-256) – Whitney Richards
After a disappointing run at Auto Club Speedway, Matt Kenseth and his team came to Charlotte Motor Speedway looking to turn things around for the running of the Bank of America 500. And turn things around they did. Sure, the team didn’t make it to victory lane, but Kenseth was able to collect bonus points for leading a lap and took the checkered flag in the 6th position.

Kenseth took the green flag from the 17th position on Saturday night. The No. 17 Crown Royal Black Ford Fusion was extremely loose in the opening run, leaving Kenseth searching for any grip he could get. The first caution of the night came out on lap 24 when the No. 39 of Ryan Newman spun in turn 3, narrowly missing Kenseth. The caution found a majority of the leaders heading for pit road, Kenseth included. His crew took a major swing at the car, making adjustments to the wedge, shim and air pressure to tighten the car up.

Kenseth was 26th for the restart on lap 29. Despite all the changes on the car, the No. 17 Ford’s handling actually became worse than it had been in the beginning. Luckily for Kenseth, the caution came out again a few laps later when Jimmie Johnson spun out.

Under that caution, Kenseth pitted again so his crew could make more adjustments. The changes improved the handling, and after restarting 31st, Kenseth had climbed to 19th eight laps later. A long green-flag run followed, and the No. 17 Ford became loose in and off the turns, and it was tight through the center. On lap 195, Kenseth worked his way inside the top 10. The loose-handling condition still plagued Kenseth and during pit stops, the only adjustments his crew made were to the air pressure settings.

Once he cracked the top 10, Kenseth fought to stay there. He looked like he would get a top-5 finish, but teammate Greg Biffle passed him late in the race. Kenseth was 6th to cross the line at the end of 334 laps. He is still 11th in the standings and is 256 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.

12. Clint Bowyer – (-300) – Amy McHargue
Clint Bowyer needed a spectacular weekend at Charlotte to keep his top 5 hopes alive but it simply did not happen. After qualifying 20th, Bowyer started his way to the front when the green flag dropped. As the second round of pit stops began on lap 75, the RCR #33 team opted to stay out; on lap 82 Clint inherited the lead, gaining five valuable bonus points. On lap 111 there was contact on pit road between Bowyer's car and the car of Jimmie Johnson. Front end damage to Clint's car would cause issues the rest of the day.

Bowyer fought to stay in the top 10, running around 7th until around the halfway mark in the race but ultimately began to lose track position due to poor handling of the race car and repeated stops to make adjustments. Bowyer finished the day in 17th place, earning 117 points in the Chase. Unfortunately for Clint, most Chase drivers outperformed the #33 team on Saturday night. Bowyer is now 300 points behind Chase leader Jimmie Johnson and 43 points back from 11th place in the standings.

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