16 October 2011
Kenseth wins as Johnson crashes out
Victory in Charlotte propelled Matt Kenseth into the top three in the Chase, but a late-race crash for Jimmie Johnson all but ended the champion's hopes of a sixth consecutive title.
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.
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