Race Weekend Central

Tracking the Chasers: Matt Kenseth Takes Checkers at Charlotte to Jump Into Thick of Title Chase

There are those days when you bust your hump all day and feel like you didn’t accomplish anything. Well, Carl Edwards started the Bank of America in third position, raced all 500 miles and drove under the checkered flag in third place. He certainly did quite a bit of work during the 334 laps it took to make up the 500 miles and in the end, he leaves Charlotte Motor Speedway still atop the points standings.

Passing was extremely difficult on Saturday night, so Edwards was asked after the race what he thought would help making the competition better at Charlotte.

“It would be fine with me if they took the spoilers off and the splitters off and we didn’t have any downforce,” said Edwards. “The cars are so close that the difference between them is smaller than the difference when you’re following somebody. NASCAR has done a really, really good job of making sure that the rules are close and we’re all about the same speed, but then when you’re going that fast and relying on downforce, it makes it really tough. This track is probably one of the toughest ones to pass on, but it’s overall tough almost everywhere we go.”

Mr. “Where did he come from” Kevin Harvick had one of those nights on Saturday but it wasn’t for a win, it was to finish in sixth. Harvick started in the 14th position and ran around the top 10 for most of the race, but never led a lap. The sixth-place finish, combined with Edwards’s third leaves Harvick five points behind the No. 99 driver for the top spot in the standings.

Matt Kenseth is as quiet and unassuming as anyone in the Sprint Cup garage, which certainly contributes to his lack of attention from the media and fans coming into the halfway point of the Chase. After putting his car on the outside of the front row and leading the race three times for 46 circuits, including the last 25 to take the win, it is going to be hard to ignore the former champion any more in the 2011 Chase.

Kenseth scored the 21st victory of his career, which is the third for him this season and the second in 25 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway by chasing down Kyle Busch and passing him, then holding him off on a late race restart.

“It was an awesome win for us,” Kenseth said in the media center after the race. “We had a pretty decent car all night. I felt like we had a car that probably the last 150 laps or so that if we could get it to the front it would be hard to beat, but it was just really hard to pass tonight, especially if you had about 20 laps on your tires. You had to get it done right away and we got a little behind that one time and got back to fifth or sixth and, honestly, it took that last 150 laps or whatever to get back to the lead.

“It was a good race. I had fun racing with Kyle there. We had a pretty decent restart, the second-to-last one, and got by Denny [Hamlin] and Carl [Edwards] and ran Kyle [Busch] down. It was tough to get by him and I’m glad we could make it happen because it was challenging.”

The victory cut Kenseth’s deficit to the leader from 12 points to seven with five races left in the season and put him in third-place behind points leader Edwards and Harvick. Kenseth would join Tony Stewart as the only drivers to win a title in both formats if he could add a title won in the Chase format to a title taken under the full-season points style.

Charlotte Motor Speedway is one of Kyle Busch’s favorite racetracks, but it has never let him taste victory in his Cup career. Saturday night was another in the long line of disappointments as Busch led a race high 111 laps, but was passed by Kenseth after a late-race restart and then was unable to get back around the Wisconsin driver on the final restart of the race. The effort allowed Busch to gain two points on Edwards in the standings and leaves him 18 points out of the series lead.

After winning the first two races in the Chase, Stewart had a couple of less successful efforts at Dover and Kansas before coming to Charlotte. The weekend started with Stewart taking the pole position for the race and saw the former series champion lead 94 laps in a little more than the first half of the race. Unfortunately Stewart faded over the last 140 laps and ended up coming home in eighth. The result leaves Stewart 24 points behind Edwards and very close to being unofficially eliminated from title contention.

“We still have half of the Chase races to go,” Stewart said in post-race interviews. “A lot can happen.”

A 16th-place finish isn’t really making lemonade out of lemons. but Brad Keselowski was not very competitive for most of the race Saturday night so scoring a finish just outside of the top 15 was about as good as the team could do. Keselowski noted that caution flags seemed to catch his team out at almost every turn on Saturday.

“We got behind on track position and got about every bad yellow you could catch after pitting under green,” Keselowski said. “That’s just part of the deal here. Real unfortunate it happened that way, but we did a great job of taking the bad breaks and at least not getting a 20th out of it.”

Keselowski’s teammate Kurt Busch had an equally frustrating night, being caught by the caution flags on a couple of occasions during the race. Similar to his Penske running mate, Busch was able to get the Lucky Dog, got back onto the lead lap and soldiered home to a solid 13th-place finish.

The pursuit of a sixth straight championships is not mathematically over after Saturday night but, for all intents and purposes, it came to an end in turn 2 on lap 318 when Jimmie Johnson got loose under Ryan Newman and spun out trying to avoid taking Newman with him. Johnson slid down onto the apron and then turned head-on into the outside wall, destroying the front clip on his No. 48 Chevrolet.

The 34th-place finish puts Johnson 35 points out of the lead of the points standings, which means he’ll have to make up an average of seven points per race over the next five races to be the champion for the sixth straight year.

For the third week in a row, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a loose lugnut cost him lead lap track position and ended up with a finish in the bottom end of the top 20, which leaves him 60 points out of the top spot in the standings. The odds of Earnhardt Jr. overcoming that deficit are extremely slim, so the focus of NASCAR’s most popular driver is now solely on winning a race before the season comes to an end.

Newman had cookies on the side of his car this weekend and he was able to pick up enough crumbs over the course of the event Saturday night to notch a 10th-place finish. The result was a positive night for the Stewart-Haas driver, but is still far from enough to climb him out of the tenth position in the points standings. Newman did gain one spot in the points thanks to Jeff Gordon having another terrible race and finishing 21st. Newman is another driver who has no realistic shot at a title and is just focusing on winning and getting ready for 2012.

Jeff Gordon won his very first race at Charlotte Motor Speedway some 17 years ago, but was unable to turn that knowledge into a strong finish in the Bank of America 500 when he spent most of the night running at the back of the lead lap or a lap down. Gordon has gone from pre-Chase favorite to footnote over the last handful of races. The only thing left at this point in time is to race his way onto the stage in Las Vegas, as only the top-10 drivers get to stroll across the stage during the end of season banquet.

Hamlin had one of his strongest runs in a while during Saturday night’s race and during the midsection of the race looked poised for a top-five finish or better. While he didn’t end up among the podium finishers, he did cross under the checkered flag in ninth position, which was his first finish better than 16th in the Chase. Hamlin’s finish, combined with Gordon’s poor showing still leaves the Virginia driver 20 points behind 11th place in the standings.

In the best of the rest category Kasey Kahne finished with that distinction for the second week in a row, coming home in fourth position after challenging at the front of the field for a good portion of the Bank of America 500. That finish leaves Kahne 11 points behind Clint Bowyer, who is in 13th in the standings, even after a rough weekend at Charlotte that saw him tear up his primary car in final practice and bring a backup car home in 24th place.

AJ Allmendinger capitalized on a fourth-place start to run with the big dogs all day, ultimately coming home in seventh place.

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The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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