Jimmie Johnson had been moving up through the top ten as the Bank of America 500 Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway entered the final 20 laps, and it was looking like another solid step in a carefully planned strategy to deliver the Sprint Cup into Johnson's hands for a sixth consecutive year.
And then it all went horribly and irretrievably wrong.
He was passing Ryan Newman for seventh place on lap 317 of 334 when the #48 started to drift down the track. Johnson tried to correct - and the car suddenly snapped right and headed straight into the wall in turn 2. It was a hard, high speed impact that did extensive damage to the car, and while he himself was unhurt Johnson himself needed to catch his breath before climbing out and making his way to the ambulance for the mandatory trip to the infield care centre.
"I am okay. That one stung for sure," admitted Johnson afterwards. "Pretty big impact. Unfortunate that we wrecked. We got into turn one and the #39 was real tight on my outside and pulled me around ... From there I was trying to save the slide, got pointed back to the fence and hammered the wall."
That deep breath he took may well have been as much the realisation sinking in that his Chase hopes were almost certainly over as it had been down to the physical impact. The wreck meant he would be classified in 34th position, putting him 35pts off the current leader in the championship with just five races to go. It's not completely insurmountable, but it would now take a series of accidents of plague-like proportions to hit half a dozen of his rivals to give him a chance of claiming the Sprint Cup again in 2011.
"Definitely not the night we wanted. This is not going to help us win a sixth championship," he admitted. "We just have to go racing. That is all there is to it. There are five races left, and right now all we have are those five races.
"Promise you, this team and myself, we won't quit," he continued. "We will go for every point we can from here on out and hopefully we are still champions at the end of the year."
Johnson's wreck put the race under yellow for the eighth and final time. Matt Kenseth had taken over the lead from Kyle Busch during the previous period of green flag running, and now led the field to the restart - and got the perfect jump on Busch who was still lurking dangerously in second place.
"Restarts have obviously not been my specialty lately - if you watch many races, especially when we restart second on the bottom, and I've done an extremely poor job of that," he admitted, having spun his wheels on two of the restarts earlier on Saturday night. "I was kicking myself on the third or fourth restart from the end when I restarted alongside of Kyle and Carl got around me and then the 11 got around me on the next restart."
But when it came to the final two crucial restarts, it finally all clicked. The penultimate restart (after a caution for a cut tyre on Greg Biffle's car) on lap 304 saw Busch line up alongside Carl Edwards, with Kenseth and Denny Hamlin behind them. Kenseth was able to get an immediate run on Edwards for second and then ran down the #18 for the lead; Busch did his best to block Kenseth, but finally the #17 pulled off great move on lap 310. He was still in the lead when Johnson's accident happened, and duly pulled away at the next restart from Busch who now had his hands full with Edwards for the second position. It resulted in Kenseth's second victory of the season: it's also the second Chase race he's won in his career, out of a total of 21 Cup race triumphs.
"We had a pretty decent car all night," said Kenseth. "I felt like we had a car that probably the last 150 laps or so that if we could get it to the front it would be hard to beat, but it was just really hard to pass tonight, especially if you had about 20 laps on your tires.
"It was a good race - I had fun racing with Kyle there," he added. "It was tough to get by him and I'm glad we could make it happen because it was challenging.”
Kyle was less thrilled with how things had turned out, although he didn't begrudge Kenseth the win: "He found something that none of us could find tonight," he said. "He just out drove me." But he was frustrated at how - having led 111 of the 334 laps of the race compared to Kenseth's 46 despite starting from the back following a post-qualifying engine change - the second place finish didn't seem to have changed his Chase prospects one jot. He remains stuck around 18pts off the leader, with the races ticking past at an alarming rate.
"It's frustrating but we'll take it. If we can finish second from here on out, we might win this deal, but these other guys - the #29 and #99 finished too good tonight, too." He pointed out that missing out on the win was costly in terms of championship points in an exceptionally tight Chase: "We still lost a position, which is four points essentially, because you get three bonus points for winning a race."
Talking of the #99, Carl Edwards was not as happy with Kyle Busch's racing during those final ten laps as Kenseth had professed to being. "There's a difference between racing hard and then cutting across a guy's nose," Edwards complained in pit road. "What I told Kyle is I just wonder why, coming off of turn 2 when I got underneath him, that he drove down instead of going up to the wall like we would normally do. And I just let him know that next time that happens, I'll just stay where I'm at and he can drive across my hood and wreck himself."
"I got loose," replied Busch. "It was steering me down the track instead of my butt going up the track, and I was just trying to hold on and not do anything," he explained. "Then I side-drafted him to stay alongside of him down the backstretch, and that was it. I was trying to keep my position."
Meanwhile the #29 of Kevin Harvick finished in sixth place, having dodged a bullet in the evening's only multi-car wreck on lap 293 when a restart attempt got too bunched up and caused damage to the cars of Jeff Gordon, David Ragan and Kasey Kahne. Harvick himself had dived to the infield, losing positions on the process but staying safe to live to fight again at another restart.
Filling out the top six were non-Chase contenders Kasey Kahne in fourth, Marcos Ambrose an impressive fifth and AJ Allmendinger in seventh. Polesitter Tony Stewart came home in eighth place ahead of two more Chase drivers, Denny Hamlin in ninth and Stewart's team mate Ryan Newman in tenth fresh from his close encounter with the wrecking Johnson.
Stewart had led the initial 42 laps of the race until the first round of pit stops, after which Greg Biffle had picked up pace and headed to the front from lap 50 through 123 save for a five-lap period during yellow flag pit stops that saw Ryan Newman in the lead. Matt Kenseth then emerged as the leader after a round of green-flag pit stops, before a caution period had put Stewart back in the lead again on lap 149; and then from lap 200 it had been all Kyle Busch after he'd fought his way from the back of the grid, until the moment Kenseth managed to get past him in the closing minutes of the race.
As well as the cautions for Johnson's crash and Biffle's tyre, there were debris cautions on laps 78, 148 and 156; a caution for Trevor Bayne stopping on track on lap 238 with fuel line problems; and a caution on lap 287 when Dave Blaney's dying engine put down oil on the track. That last incident had led to the ill-fated restart attempt on lap 294 that had caught out Gordon, Ragan and Kahne.
In terms of the Chase championship points standings
, Carl Edwards remains out front and is now 5pts ahead of Kevin Harvick, with Kenseth rising up to third place 7pts off the lead on the back of his win this weekend. Kyle Busch climbs to fourth place but stubbornly remains 18pts off the leader, much as he's been all along.
Tony Stewart's top ten finish repairs some of the recent slump in form and puts him up fifth place just ahead of Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch, who had below-par mid-teen finishes at Charlotte. This trio is on the verge of losing touch with the Chase, and Jimmie Johnson - now 35pts off Edwards - is definitely looking like his Chase hopes are more fairytale than realistic.
The final four - Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin - are all 60pts or more off the leader and their Chase campaigns are now firmly done for the year.
Full race results from Charlotte