What seemed to be a sure win for Jimmie Johnson tonight at Charlotte Motor Speedway instead went to Brad Keselowski. And what seemed to be the perfect situation for Johnson to overtake Matt Kenseth (pictured) for the lead in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup instead ended with Kenseth still atop the standings with five races left.
Kenseth and Johnson ultimately finished third and fourth in the Bank of America 500. That effectively constitutes a draw, as Kenseth was only able to extend his lead in the Chase by one point to a margin of four as the scene shifts to Talladega Superspeedway next weekend.
But Kenseth will surely take it, especially as it appeared that Johnson would be the new Chase leader coming out of North Carolina this evening. He’d been crushing the competition in the middle stages of the race, but a debris caution with 27 laps left changed everything.
As the yellow waved, Johnson led the race leaders to the pits for their final stops of the night but dropped back to third when he took four tires, while Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne took two and grabbed first and second positions respectively.
Then, instead of capitalizing on his four fresh Goodyears, Johnson fell all the way back to seventh after a poor restart. He would regain three of those lost positions back, but an opportunity to seize control of the championship had vanished.
Still, Johnson – as usual – tried to keep on an even keel about the situation.
“I wish we’d finished better, but it was still a strong performance for the Lowe’s car,” Johnson said to ESPN. “I’m very proud of the effort – we had a fast car, great qualifying, great pit stops. Everything’s there. We’ll just keep doing our jobs and work at it week after week, and see what we can get.”
But with Charlotte in the rear view mirror, the biggest wild card in the post-season now beckons. Nothing more and nothing less than a 200 mile-per-hour game of Russian Roulette, Talladega and its dreaded “Big One” can wipe out championship dreams in an instant.
For his part, Kenseth emphasized both Dega’s unpredictable nature and the fact that he still has the Chase lead when asked about what awaits him and the rest of the Chasers in Alabama.
“Jimmie’s certainly been strong in the [restrictor] plate races and Harvick’s always been good there, but you never really know what’s going to happen at Talladega,” he said.
“But I’m glad we’re still in the lead. We have a lot of racing to do, we made it through the first half of [the Chase] and have maintained a very small lead, so it’s better than being behind. We’ll go to Talladega, race hard, hope our car has some speed in it, and be able to hang up front.”
INDIANAPOLIS – Here’s a rundown of times and notes from Saturday at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test, as all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder had their first day of testing on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. A link to Friday’s notebook is here.
Drivers and teams alike have raved about the pace, and the rather loud sound, of the new Tatuus PM-18 Mazda. Reports from private testing had the new car rather close to Indy Lights pace at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and rather quicker than the old car at Road America. The first tangible evidence of that occurred today as all 10 of the Pro Mazda drivers who got representative laps (second BN Racing car of Leonard Hoogenboom ran only a few laps in session four after engine issues all day) supplanted the Pro Mazda lap record at IMS – 1:22.8800 by Pato O’Ward in 2016 – easily. Oliver Askew’s best time of 1:19.8920 in the second session was nearly a full three seconds quicker on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course.
Of the 11 Pro Mazda drivers that ran today, only Carlos Cunha, Robert Megennis, Nikita Lastochkin, Kris Wright and Sting Ray Robb ran in the 2017 season. But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see any or all five of them running full-time in 2018 for what would be each of their second seasons in the championship, as returning sophomores along with what should be a glut of strong rookies. Wright, who also races sports cars, looks poised to add a second program of some other series to a planned Pro Mazda full season.
Megennis is planning to test with other teams in the weeks to come, as he tests for Juncos this week after racing in USF2000 with Pelfrey the last two years. Both he and Robb missed portions of sessions today with new car issues.
Several Indy Lights spins and off-course excursions occurred but none produced any serious issues. Rinus Veekay and Anthony Martin were among those to test the course limits but kept on going unharmed. Veekay had a spin in session three on new tires, then promptly laid down the fastest lap of the session for Belardi later on.
His teammate this weekend, Nico Jamin, wound up with the fastest lap of the day in Indy Lights – although he wasn’t quickest in the cool evening session, the fourth of the day, when most of the field ran some sticker tire runs on their Cooper tires.
Pro Mazda title combatants Victor Franzoni (Juncos) and Anthony Martin (Andretti) made their Indy Lights test debuts. The perpetually happy Franzoni wrote on Instagram, “Awesome day!! We finished the day in P3!! The most import we learned a lot!! Tomorrow will be even better!!” Martin, meanwhile, said this: “It’s obviously a new car – bigger, faster and a lot more downforce, so I’m adapting to it and growing up to it nice and slowly. You don’t want to push yourself too early, so we’re working up to a few things. You have to do things a lot quicker and you have to use a lot more brake pressure.”
In USF2000, it was an excellent day at the office for Pabst Racing with Andres Gutierrez – who impressed in a pair of weekends with DE Force Racing this year – leading three of four sessions, while teammates Hunter McElrea and Lucas Kohl were also in the top-five. Pabst has been busy running cars in both USF2000 and Pro Mazda this weekend.
Beyond Pabst, Newman Wachs Racing also had an excellent day, mainly with sophomore Darren Keane and Californian rookie Jake Craig. Keane, who’s coached by Ozz Negri, led the fourth and final session of the day, and stands as a driver who could make a big leap forward in performance if he secures a full season in 2018.
Another team of note today was BN Racing, with Callan O’Keefe – Keane’s teammate when both drove for Team BENIK at this race weekend last May – second best on the day. The South African is poised to be that team’s lead driver next season. Teammates Elliott Finlayson and Zoey Edenholm are working towards seasons of their own; Finlayson having coming off a recent Super Sweep in SCCA Runoffs competition at IMS last month and Edenholm having only just graduated from karts into cars just this month.
While the USF2000 field was primarily rookie-dominated, two-year series veteran Aaron Telitz made a cameo return today with RJB Motorsports, and brought the ex-ArmsUp chassis its best pace yet in RJB’s hands as the Wisconsinite ran with Mirl Swan and Alex Barron’s crew support. Past RJB driver and two-time Team USA Scholarship, Michai Stephens, was also on site today.
Speaking of ArmsUp, its top rookie from 2017, Devin Wojcik was on hand today making the rounds as well, although wasn’t in a car. He looks to return to USF2000 for a second season in 2018.
USF2000 boasted some good diversity with Pabst, BN, Newman Wachs, Exclusive, Pelfrey, BENIK and RJB teams in the top 10 today, but there’s one notable omission: Cape Motorsports. The seven-time defending champions in the series are not testing in USF2000 this weekend, and has just a single Pro Mazda car on site for Oliver Askew. Granted, the team is also at Circuit of The Americas this weekend for F4 U.S. Championship action, where Kyle Kirkwood has taken that series’ championship. DE Force, which also ran in USF2000 this year, is also not here this weekend as it’s at COTA. ArmsUp isn’t here this weekend either.