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.”