Charlotte Update: Harvick leads, Dale Jr. battling shifter problem

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Fast as usual, Kevin Harvick leads at the halfway point of the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

At Lap 167 of 334, Harvick was leading two non-Chase drivers in Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray. Another early leader, Jeff Gordon, was situated in fourth and Brad Keselowski had made his way up to fifth.

Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson, and Brian Vickers comprised the remainder of the Top 10.

Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is mired in mid-pack due to a shifter problem that developed shortly after Lap 130. After leading some laps early on, Junior is running 22nd on a night where he must perform well in order to recover from his crash last weekend at Kansas in the Contender Round opener.

Pole sitter Kyle Busch led the first 13 laps of the race before Gordon went to the outside and took the point at Lap 14. Gordon would pace the field up to the Lap 25 competition caution (occurring due to an earlier shower at the track this afternoon).

A two-tire stop under that yellow enabled birthday boy Earnhardt to jump Kyle (four tires) for the lead going into the restart at Lap 31. But Kyle quickly dispatched Earnhardt for the lead moments after the green flag, and Earnhardt subsequently faded back to fifth by Lap 40.

Gordon re-asserted himself and again grabbed the lead at Lap 38, and one lap later, Harvick moved by Busch himself for second position. Meanwhile, Keselowski and Larson started to make their presence felt by moving into the Top 10 after having sub-par qualifying sessions on Thursday.

Green flag stops began at Lap 70 with Joey Logano, who had a poor opening stint and was 23rd at the time but can afford a bad night thanks to his win last week at Kansas.

Gordon and Harvick followed by pitting together from first and second at Lap 75, triggering a rush to the pits among the rest of the leaders.

Keselowski’s stop at Lap 79 ended the cycle with Gordon, Harvick, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, and Earnhardt as the Top 5; Keselowski wound up ninth but was up to seventh at Lap 90.

On Lap 95, the second caution of the night flew for Clint Bowyer slowing on the track with what appeared to be an engine failure on his Toyota. Another wave of yellow-flag stops ensued and once again, Earnhardt jumped to the lead with a two-tire call.

But also taking two was McMurray, and following the restart at Lap 100, Big Mac drove by on the outside in the tri-oval to take the point. His stint in P1 was short-lived, however, as Harvick passed McMurray in the tri-oval himself to become the new leader at Lap 105.

Also pushing hard off the restart was Keselowski, who made his first appearance of the night in the Top 5 as Earnhardt dropped out of the same bracket with the two fresh tires. Johnson was also doing well at this point, having moved up from 21st on the grid to eighth at Lap 118.

While those charges were taking place, Harvick had stretched out his lead over Gordon to more than six seconds before Paul Menard’s engine blew up down the backstretch at Lap 136 to bring out the caution.

Before that yellow came out, Earnhardt reported to the pits that his gear shifter had broken in his hand and he was forced to go to the pits. He pitted again while the leaders had normal yellow-flag service (which ended with Harvick keeping his lead), but was then hit with a speeding penalty.

Eventually, crew chief Steve Letarte opted to have Junior stay out instead of going back in for another stop so he could stay on the lead lap.

He took the restart at Lap 143 in 23rd, last among those on the lead lap.

Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023; leaves open possibility of returning at Ganassi

Jimmie Johnson race 2023
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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Though he remains uncertain of his plans for next year, Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023, scaling back his schedule after running a full 17-race NTT IndyCar Series season.

“This was a difficult choice for me, but in my heart, I know it’s the right one,” Johnson said in a statement Monday morning. “I’m not exactly sure what the next chapter holds, but if an opportunity comes along that makes sense, I will consider it. I still have a bucket list of racing events I would like to take part in. Competing at this level in IndyCar has been such a great experience.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better team to race for than Chip Ganassi and Chip Ganassi Racing. Everyone worked extremely hard for the last two seasons, pushing to get the best performances out of me every single week. The support from my crew and teammates Dario (Franchitti), Scott (Dixon), Tony (Kanaan), Marcus (Ericsson) and Alex (Palou) went above and beyond anything I could have ever asked for.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR JIMMIE JOHNSON: An analysis of his racing options for the 2023 season

Driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, Johnson ranked 21st in the 2022 points standings with a career-best fifth place July 24 at Iowa Speedway.

After running only road and street courses for Ganassi in 2021, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion added ovals this year. In his Indy 500 debut, he qualified 12th and finished 28th after a late crash.

“I do have a desire to go back (to IndyCar), it’s just at this point, I know what’s required to do a full schedule, and I don’t have that in me,” Johnson told AP. “I don’t have that passion that I need for myself to commit myself to a full season.”

That leaves open the concept of Johnson returning part time with Ganassi, perhaps exclusively on ovals.

“We are fully supportive of Jimmie,” team owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “He has been a valued member of our team and if we can find a way to continue working together, we would like to do so.”

During IndyCar’s season finale race weekend, Johnson told reporters Sept. 9 that he planned to explore his options with wife Chandra and daughters Evie and Lydia. Johnson told the Associated Press that his family is considering living abroad for a year or two, and he has toyed with the idea of running in the World Endurance Championship sports car series because of its international locales.

Johnson hasn’t ruled out IndyCar, IMSA sports cars or even a cameo in NASCAR next year. Since retiring from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season, he has entered the endurance races of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac (including Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale). Johnson also wants to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is a prime candidate for the Garage 56 entry (a joint project of NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports).

Johnson told the AP he is interested in becoming the latest driver to try “The Double” and run both the Coca-Cola 600 and Indy 500 on the same day (the most recent was Kurt Busch in 2014).

“You know me and endurance sports, and ‘The Double’ sounds awesome,” Johnson, a four-time Coke 600 winner, told AP. “I’ve always had this respect for the guys who have done ‘The Double.’ I would say it is more of a respect thing than a bucket-list item, and I’d love to put some energy into that idea and see if I can pull it off.”

It is less likely that he would return to IMSA’s endurance events because its top prototype series is being overhauled, limiting the amount of inventory available for the new LMDh cars in the rebranded GTP division.

Johnson has confirmed that he would retain primary sponsor Carvana, which has backed him in IndyCar the past two years. He revealed his decision Monday during the last episode of “Reinventing the Wheel,” Carvana Racing’s eight-part docuseries about his 2023 season.

“I’m thankful for the partnership with a company like Carvana for allowing me to take this journey in IndyCar, for seeing the value in our partnership and being open to future opportunities together,” Johnson said. “They have truly showed me that there are no finish lines in life. Along with Carvana, The American Legion, Ally, cbdMD and Frank August were there every step of the way, and I couldn’t have done it without all of them. Most importantly — and the true rockstars in all of this –my family, Chani, Evie and Lydia. They have always allowed me to chase my dreams, and we are all just really excited about what the future holds for all of us. I have enjoyed every minute of these last two years.”

Said Carvana co-founder Ryan Keeton: “During the past two years, Jimmie Johnson has been so amazing to collaborate with. Our team admires his passion, hard work and commitment to continuous improvement while also having fun, and we look forward to continuing to support him next year in this new chapter.”