Monday, October 14, 2013

Chasing the Championship: Recapping the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway

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For the first time since Jamie McMurray in October 2010, a non-Chase driver took home the victory in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. Reigning Sprint Cup Series Champion, Brad Keselowski got his first win of the season Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Keselowski, who only led 11 laps, overcame difficulties on pit road early in the race and beat out Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne on the final restart.

It was an eventful night for our Chasers as the Hendrick Motorsports stable of Johnson, Kahne, Gordon, and Earnhardt Jr. dominated the 500-mile event in NASCAR’s backyard. Matt Kenseth retained his points lead over Jimmie Johnson and now sits four points ahead of his nearest rival.

Next weekend NASCAR heads to Talladega Speedway, the true wildcard in the schedule. But before we head to Alabama, let’s see how the the 13 drivers fared Saturday night under the lights.

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1. Matt Kenseth (2,225 points)
by: Rebecca Kivak

After struggling throughout the first half of Saturday’s Bank of America 500, Matt Kenseth made a late rally to finish a remarkable third at Charlotte. The 2003 Sprint Cup champion maintained his points lead by finishing one spot ahead of Jimmie Johnson.

Kenseth rolled off the grid 20th on Saturday night. The combination of a mid-pack starting position and an ill-handling racecar stymied Kenseth’s progress. The driver of the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota slowly worked his way up to the 11th position before the second caution came out on Lap 84. However, a slow pit stop hurt Kenseth’s drive, forcing him to restart 17th.

The adjustments the No. 20 crew made to the car started to click. Kenseth drove up to 12th by Lap 111 and on Lap 131 he led a lap during green-flag pit stops. He broke into the top 10 by Lap 171 and entered the top five on Lap 205.

Kenseth was running in the top five when the fourth and final caution came out on Lap 308. After getting four tires, Kenseth took off and tried to make a run at the win, getting as high as second. When the checkered flag waved, Kenseth held off Johnson to finish third. The hard-fought finish netted Kenseth one more precious point in the standings, stretching his lead to four points over Johnson.

“Tonight was a big positive for us,” Kenseth said at Charlotte. “It was a little bit of a struggle this weekend, more than we anticipated. I didn't get a good lap qualifying, and that was really the start of us being behind tonight.

“About our second or third adjustment, Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) and our group really hit it and really found something that I liked, and our car started driving really good. I could pass really good, start working our way up through the field. It was such long runs and long greens that they got really far ahead of us. Overall I was really proud of my whole Dollar General team. They had a great pit stop there at the end, did a great job with adjustments.”

Kenseth was disappointed he “didn't figure out how to win it” after the last restart. But his impressive turnaround at Charlotte puts him in a good position as points leader going into volatile Talladega next week.

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2. Jimmie Johnson (-4)
by: Stacey Owens

Since Lowe's dropped their sponsorship of Charlotte Motor Speedway after the 2009 season, Jimmie Johnson hasn't won a points race at the 1.5-mile track. He and the No. 48 team were looking to change that fact Saturday night in the Bank of America 500, but a late-race debris caution and a charging Brad Keselowski spoiled their efforts.

After having led 130 laps to teammate Kasey Kahne's race-high 138 laps, Johnson settled for a fourth place finish at the track once called "Jimmie's house." After crew chief, Chad Knaus called for a four-tire stop in the final pit stop of the night, Johnson restarted in third but was quickly shuffled back to sixth. When the laps wound down, Johnson had fought his way to fourth but was unable to make any ground on those ahead of him, including points leader Matt Kenseth who finished third.

"Wish we finished better but certainly a strong performance for this Lowe's car," Johnson said following the race. "Very proud of the effort, of the fast car. Great qualifying effort. Great pit stops. You know, everything's there. We're doing our jobs, and we'll just keep working at it week after week and see what we can get."

Though he lost a single point to Kenseth in the championship standings, you can bet that Johnson and the rest of the No. 48 team will make every effort to carry out the "Never Stop Improving" slogan of their sponsor as they head to Talladega next weekend in pursuit of their, as yet elusive, sixth title.

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3. Kevin Harvick (-29)
by: Rebecca Kivak

Despite a promising start, Kevin Harvick never contended for the win at Charlotte. The outside pole sitter fought what he called a “terrible” racecar throughout Saturday’s Bank of America 500, salvaging a sixth-place finish.

Coming off his Kansas win, Harvick qualified second at Charlotte, starting in the front row for the second consecutive week. But the driver of the No. 29 Jimmy John’s Chevrolet couldn’t catch pole sitter Jeff Gordon in the opening laps. On Lap 20, Harvick lost second place to Jimmie Johnson and he slid back from there.

Battling a loose racecar, Harvick ran in the top 15 for the majority of the race. The long green-flag runs made it difficult for Harvick’s crew to find the right adjustments to improve the handling of the No. 29. After the race’s fourth and final caution on Lap 308, Harvick took four tires and adjustments on his last pit stop. He restarted eighth and gained two spots by Lap 314. When the checkered flag flew, the Richard Childress Racing driver crossed the finish line in sixth.

Harvick’s finish was enough to maintain the third position in the point standings, but he lost four points to leader Matt Kenseth, increasing his gap to 29 behind the points leader.

“We got a decent finish, but our car was terrible all night,” Harvick said. “I just have to thank all my Jimmy John’s guys for working hard and keeping the car on the lead lap. Then just the restart went our way there at the end and we were able to get a decent finish out of it. We survived.”

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4. Jeff Gordon (-36)
by: Katy Lindamood

Jeff Gordon still poses a threat, even after two decades of racing. On Saturday night he hoped to turn his first place qualifying run into a victory and possibly shake up the points. A win wasn’t in the cards, but Gordon still remains in the hunt for the title with five races left.

Starting from the pole, Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates were strong during the 500-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Tire strategy played a major role in the outcome of Gordon’s race and may have ultimately cost him a top-five finish.

After leading the first 26 circuit,s Gordon came to the attention of his pit crew. Taking four tires, when several of the leaders took two, put the No. 24 in eighth for the restart. From that point forward Gordon complained that the car got tight. As the runs progressed though he stayed inside the top 10.

The Axalta Chevrolet’s final shot at the victory came during the final round of stops. Opting for two-tires instead of the four taken by  the majority of the field, Gordon wasn’t able to get the speed he needed to stay up front. He fell back to seventh position (third highest among the HMS stable) and retained his fourth-place position in the standings.

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5. Kyle Busch (-37)
by: Beth Reinke


After winning the Nationwide race at Charlotte on Friday night, Kyle Busch set his sights on a sweep, but fell just a tad short. Displaying a smidgen of perfectionism along with his passion for winning, Kyle Busch was perplexed after his fifth-place showing at Charlotte on Saturday night.

“It’s good to finish in the top-five, but it’s frustrating,” Busch said. “I’m beating myself up every week trying to figure out what I got to do to be better, and I don’t know what it is. I work hard through practice. I work hard through the week. I study film. I do everything I need to do, but it’s not paying off. We certainly got a top-five, which is good. We should be happy about that, but when it’s championship time, that’s not what you need. We need wins.”

The solid run added to Busch’s success at the track, bringing his stats to nine top-five finishes in 20 Cup starts, but still no wins in the top series. After rolling off ninth, the No. 18 M&Ms Toyota and crew had a rough first pit stop, but maintained or gained spots on pit road for the rest of the race.

On the first stop, the call was for two tires, but due to a last-minute miscommunication the front tire changer thought it was a 4-tire stop, so he loosened the left front lugnuts. Busch had to make a second trip down pit road to check the tires, and restarted 34th. In typical “hammer down” fashion, he concentrated on making up the lost spots, and plowed his way up to 16th by about Lap 70.

The No. 18 team had a nice, clean pit stop under yellow the next time around, and on the restart, Busch gained eight spots, going from 14th to fifth in one lap. He stayed in the top five for the rest of the event, running as high as second, and joined Joe Gibbs Racing teammates in the top 10: Kenseth third, Busch fifth and Hamlin ninth. Busch remains fifth in the championship standings, 37 points behind the leader.

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6. Greg Biffle (-58)
by: Katy Lindamood

Saturday night didn’t turn out the way Greg Biffle had hoped. After earning the third starting position, Biffle felt positive that he’d have a good run, but luck wasn’t on his side.

The No. 16 Ford began Saturday’s race from the third position behind Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick. It didn’t take long for the 3M Fusion begin his descent through the field as Biffle complained of loose conditions in his racecar. By Lap 40 he’d fallen to 13th position.

The team worked tirelessly on the car, removing a shim during an early stop and later replacing it at the driver’s request. Despite their efforts Biffle was unable to make up significant time on the track and finished the race in the 16th position.

Following the fifth race in the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup Series Championship, Greg Biffle finds himself in sixth position in the standings, the first driver more than a full race behind leader Matt Kenseth.

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7. Kurt Busch (-59)
by: Jessica Tow


In a race that was full of trash, blown up engines and Hendrick domination, Kurt Busch and his team fared somewhat well. Busch started Saturday night's Bank of America 400 from the 10th position and remained in the top 10 throughout most of the night. Towards the end, he started losing track position. The No. 78 chassis required adjustments on almost every pit stop. When the checkered flag flew, Busch rallied to a 14th-place finish with one lap down.

Following the race, Busch said: "Not much to say, it wasn’t a good night for our Furniture Row team. We lost the handling of the car and it was a struggle the entire night. We had an upbeat feeling about tonight after having two strong practices on Friday. But nothing really materialized for us to make a charge. We were the first car a lap down and needed that caution to get back on the lead lap to have an opportunity to gain a few more positions. It’s disappointing to finish where we did after having a number of solid runs on the mile-and-a-half tracks, including last week’s runner-up result at Kansas.”

Busch added, "We have five more races remaining and I know we can bounce back from tonight. We have done it before and we can do it again.”

Kurt Busch remains seventh in the championship standings with one point separating him and sixth place. He now sits 59 points behind standings leader Matt Kenseth.

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8. Clint Bowyer (-63)
by: Rebecca Kivak

Clint Bowyer came into Charlotte hoping to defend his win from last fall, but problems underneath the hood of his racecar zapped his chance at victory. Despite his late-race troubles, Bowyer’s 11th-place finished buoyed him one spot in the championship standings to eighth.

Bowyer started Saturday’s Bank of America 500 in 14th and spent the majority of the race in the top 15. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver worked his way through the field, leading once for a single lap to pick up a bonus point. On Lap 232, Bowyer broke into the top five.

The driver of the No. 15 Raspberry 5-hour ENERGY Toyota looked to be a contender for the win. The team was even prepared to make it on fuel to the end of the race before the fourth and final caution came out on Lap 308. But with 30 laps to go, Bowyer reported trouble under the hood of his racecar. He dropped back to ensure his car made it across the finish line, where he came home 11th.

“Man, when it isn’t your day it just isn’t your day,” Bowyer said. “We should have had a top five, but something happened under the hood with about 30 to go and it just killed us. We were looking so good. I nursed it there at the end.”

Bowyer sits 63 markers behind points leader Matt Kenseth.

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9.  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  (-66)
by: Carol D’Agostino

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had an eventful week. He turned 39 on Thursday and made his 500th career Sprint Cup start on Saturday evening. Unfortunately the accolades stopped there as Earnhardt finished the race in 15th place after starting in 6th. The disappointing finish dropped him one spot in the standings to ninth.

The race started out well for Earnhardt Jr., who led 19 laps early on, and spent a good part of the first half of the evening racing inside the top five with his Hendrick Motorsports teammates. The second half of the race was punctuated by debris on the grill and tight conditions causing the No. 88 car to go one lap down late in the race.

“We’re having some pretty good cars; something happened tonight. We aren’t quite sure what it was. We’ll find something, I’m sure. The car just doesn’t get that tight from running that good without any adjustments. We were freeing it up, moving the track bar, taking wedge out and it just kept getting tighter and tighter.”

Interestingly enough Earnhardt Jr.’s career average finish at our next stop at Talladega is 15.0 with five wins,  nine top fives, and 13 top 10s.

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10. Carl Edwards (-67)
by: Katy Lindamood

Carl Edwards recorded his 16th top-10 finish of the season Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, earning him one position in the standings.

Despite qualifying 15th, the No. 99 was solid  throughout the race. Moving into the top ten before the 50-lap mark, Edwards was able to maintain track position when others fell back as their tires lost grip. Adjustments made on pit road helped with handling as the night wore, but Edwards was unable to make passes that would have put him in contention for the win.

“We’re fortunate to finish 10th. It was really hard to pass, but not for everybody. Some people could make it happen, so I have to say that as far as how the tire drove and all that stuff, I’d say this was better and more fun to drive. This is my kind of race track,” said Edwards, following his 10th-place effort.

Edwards now sits 10th in the standings, 67 points behind Matt Kenseth.

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11. Joey Logano  (-75)
by: Lacy Keyser

It was a rough night for Joey Logano Saturday night in Charlotte. Ill-handling conditions and mishaps on pit road added to Logano’s long evening.

From having no drive to being loose were only the start of Logano’s issues during the race. Dispute all the adjustments done to the No.22, the car got worse as the laps clicked away.

On Lap 100, a missing lug nut forced Logano to make two pit stops and fall back. From then on, the car was evil with the handling never to his liking.

He finished 18th, two laps down.

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12. Ryan Newman (-78)
by: Katy Lindamood

Ryan Newman may not have put his car in victory lane Saturday night, but his effort wasn’t for naught. Newman’s top-10 finish allowed mortgage payments to be made for 10 lucky Quicken Loans Customers and it’s Bloomin’ Monday at Outback Steakhouse.

Starting from the seventh postion, Newman fought an ill-handling racecar through much of the event. In the first portion of the race the No. 39 was loose but as the night progressed and adjustments were made, the car began to tighten up.

Newman led two laps and finished the Bank of America 500 eighth.

Next week the circuit moved to Talladega Superspeedway where Newman has had his share of bad luck.


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13. Kasey Kahne (-81)
by: Lacy Keyser

Kasey Kahne hasn’t been lucky in the last the few Chase races. But luck was finally looking up for Kahne. He would go on to lead 138 laps Saturday night in Charlotte, including a heated battled with Brad Keselowski during the closing laps.

Much of Kahne’s night was spent in clean air and the No.5 was a force all night. He had some issues on restart getting going, but once he overcame that, the car was gone. Hendrick Motorsports drivers occupied the top spots and battled for the lead all night.

On the final restart, Kahne charged, took the lead and looked as if he would secure the win. But he reported his tires felt off in Turn 1, which allowed Keselowski to battle for the lead. It was a good, clean, hard racing  between Kahne and Keselowski - the battle of the Ks - and Kahne had to settle for second.

“We took two at the end," Kahne said on the final restart. "That was a great call to stay on the front row there and have a shot. I was able to clear Jeff. I thought I did pretty good, but as soon as I got to Turn 1 my left side was a little bit -- I could feel they weren't working quite as well. They were just rough, kind of bouncing a little bit, so I knew I was in trouble at that point. So I just tried to run good laps, and Brad caught me and I tried to switch it up and find momentum and find speed.”

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