With fellow Chase contenders dropping like flies around him, Joey Logano kept cool to secure victory in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte, and a safe passage into the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup Round 3.
It was a strange race from the outset, after a rain delay shunted the race from it’s usual Saturday night slot to a Sunday afternoon start, meaning we were treated to a daytime race at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the first time in many a year, and it seemed to throw many of the drivers off their usual rhythm – from the very first green flag drop of the day, where Jeb Burton ploughed Brett Moffitt barely 100 metres after the start-finish line after a bottleneck further up, it was clear this was going to be one of those more unusual races.
And so it proved with a whole host of Chase contenders hitting huge setbacks.
Dale Earnhardt Jr had a torrid race; contact with Carl Edwards at lap 69 pushed him up into the wall, which then led to a flat tire dropping him one lap down. After later rallying from 38th to 26th, he smacked the wall again – even harder this time – after apparantly hitting oil left down after Justin Allgaier‘s engine went sour at lap 180. NASCAR denied throwing the green with fluid still on the track, but whatever the reason, Jr left Charlotte three laps down, frustrated (‘I lost count of the amount of times I hit the wall today’ he remarked after the race), and needing a big turnaround at Kansas or Talladega, the latter a track he has won on already this year.
That foxhole of trouble is a crowded house, however. Matt Kenseth looked to be putting yet another Joe Gibbs Racing hurting on the field after taking pole and leading the first 75 laps, but after a four-tire pitstop put him back in the field, he got into trouble with Ryan Newman at lap 175, and his day spiralled downhill in a similar fashion to Jr’s, finally ending in the wall 90 laps from the flag, his #20 Toyota Camry torn to pieces. Damage to Newman’s #31 Chevrolet also puts him in the Chase drop zone after one race.
His teammate Kyle Busch also hit trouble in a bizarre incident coming onto pit road at 2/3rds distance; as he changed his mind on pitting and went to turn right back onto the racetrack, Kyle Larson was doing the exact opposite, turning dead left onto pit road at the last minute. Both cars collided and sustained marginal damage, and whilst Larson was apologetic on the radio, both men were probably guilty of being ‘a little too clever for their own good’ as race commentator Jeff Burton sagely observed.
Charlotte was in no mood to discriminate on which drivers suffered bad days, be they Chasers or not – Jimmie Johnson was looking to bounce back from a shock elimination from the Chase last week at a track he has been dominant at, but was dumped out of the race with engine failure – a second consecutive mechanical failure in as many races – at lap 257, having ran comfortably in the top five for most of the day. Ditto his teammate Kasey Kahne, who’s race had ended much earlier after a flat tire pancaked his car into the wall and out of proceedings at lap 58.
With all this in context, the relief in Logano’s voice in victory lane spoke volumes. “What a great car,” Logano said. “This makes Talladega way easier. I know it’s on everyone mind’s when this round started. It certainly helps us sleep easier for the next couple of weeks. … Our team kept our heads up stayed confident. This helps us recharge our batteries and get ready for the next round.”
Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr, Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch completed the top-5, but despite strong runs from them, only Logano is now safe from the perils of Talladega and potential Chase elimination. And with Talladega notorious for being a great equaliser, the eleven drivers still in this round – particular those four in the drop zone – will be eyeing next weekend’s race at Kansas with huge importance.