Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
There was a time when losing a lap for an unscheduled pit stop and a pit road penalty would have meant a meltdown from Kyle Busch. But that time is past, and those problems, along with a piece of an 11-car pileup and subsequent repairs, didn’t rattle Busch, who went on to finish sixth. That change in mentality has been the key to Busch’s 2015 title and his solid defense of it so far this season. It’s never been a question of talent for Busch, but for a long time, he was his own worst enemy. Those days are now behind him, and Busch looks poised to make a run at Jimmie Johnson on the career win tally.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Is there a paradigm shift going on in the Cup Series as the Chase enters the homestretch? Hendrick Motorsports, a perennial juggernaut that stumbled so badly through most of 2016 that it was hard to take any of its drivers seriously as a title contender, suddenly made a statement with a dominant win at the track that’s just up the street from the team’s shop.
What’s even more telling is that Hendrick Motorsports as a whole looked stronger at Charlotte than they have in a long time. Alex Bowman had a lightning-fast qualifying run, edged out for the pole only by Kevin Harvick, who also runs Hendrick equipment. Chase Elliott looked like he was the only driver with something for Johnson for much of the day. (Bowman and Elliott both crashed, but Bowman’s wreck was due to a tire failure and Elliott was turned by Kyle Busch in a multi-car melee.) Kasey Kahne? He finished third with a late charge. Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick all finished 11th or better.
The Joe Gibbs Racing cars were also strong on Sunday, in particular the No. 20 of Matt Kenseth, who overcame penalties and came from the back of the field twice to finish second, but for the first time all season, there was an organization that looked like it could go toe to toe with JGR and not blink. With six races left, what looked like a lock suddenly doesn’t look like such a sure thing. Is there blood in the water?
Where… did the pole-sitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Kevin Harvick edged Alex Bowman for the pole at Charlotte, with what appeared to be exactly the right time for the 2014 series champion. Harvick won at Loudon to secure a spot in the round of 12 in the Chase, but finds himself in jeopardy of missing the next cut leaving NASCAR’s home track after engine problems sent him behind the wall just before the halfway point, leaving him with a 38th-place finish. What may save Harvick in the end was a multi-car crash with 80 to go that saw several other Chase teams involved. It means Harvick may not need a win to advance if he can score top fives at both Kansas and Talladega.
Joey Logano won this race a year ago with a move that incurred Matt Kenseth’s ire, but he was too busy fighting tire woes Sunday to worry about anyone else. Logano had both front tires go down in two separate incidents. He slapped the wall hard both times, with the second hit causing extensive to the No. 22 and sending Logano to the garage for an extended amount of time. He got back on track but lost so many laps making repairs that he couldn’t get above 36th at the end.
When… did it all go sideways?
Just when everyone was looking at Talladega to shake things up, Charlotte was brutal to the title contenders. More than half of the 12 drivers still in title contention ran into trouble. A pair of tire failures (notable in that they were not the same tire) got Joey Logano. An oil pump failure caused Kevin Harvick’s engine to expire. Hamlin’s engine couldn’t go the distance either.
But what really changed the day was a multi-car crash that would make Daytona proud. On a lap 259 restart, Austin Dillon didn’t get up to speed and got turned by Martin Truex, Jr. Chase Elliott checked up and got turned by Kyle Busch and it was on. Truex avoided damage, and Busch’s team was able to fix his car, but Dillon and Elliott were done for the day. Also involved were Chasers Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards, both of whom were able to continue. The crash did little to alter the results. Jimmie Johnson had the field covered, but it did alter the complexion of both the race and the Chase as the title hunt nears the halfway point.
Why… did Jimmie Johnson win the race?
Johnson dominated in a way you’d have expected from him a decade ago. Once almost a shoo-in at Charlotte, Johnson’s fortune dried up after the track was resurfaced several years ago. But Sunday, he looked like the Jimmie Johnson who won five straight titles from 2006-2010 and made himself a real contender for the first time since the Chase format changed (some say to stop his dominance under the old formula) two years ago.
Johnson has found speed at the best possible time for a seventh title run, leading 155 laps en route to the 78th checkered flag of the career that started in this race 15 years ago. Add to that mix that Johnson is a bulldog when he can be near the top, and suddenly his hopes for a seventh title, which were dimming, have brightened considerably.
How… big a deal is today’s race to the Chase drivers?
Well, to Johnson, it’s a very big deal, because Talladega is a huge wild card in this round and the win guarantees him passage through that strange land, where it’s always been feast or famine for Johnson. But for the drivers who suffered damage or other problems? Well, it might not be so bad also because Talladega looms large. That race is such a crapshoot that, provided a team can stop the bleeding at Kansas next week, a bad race at ‘Dega for someone else can put someone back in the running if they can get a good finish there. In the first round, a poor finish at Chicagoland was nearly insurmountable…but this time around it might not be so. What it may actually come down to is Kansas, and who can be strong enough there to come out of Talladega in position to move on.
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