By Andrew Charman
Jimmie Johnson drives a Chevrolet liveried with the same name as Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, and he loves the place. He won the UAW-GM Quality 500 on Saturday night to complete a 2004 Charlotte sweep, adding to his victory at the Coca-Cola 600 in May. On a night when all 10 Nextel Cup contenders hit trouble of some sort, Jeff Gordon kept his hopes alive with an amazing comeback from a lap one wreck to finish second.
Pole-sitter Ryan Newman's #12 ALLTEL Dodge led the 43 starters to the green flag as dusk fell over Charlotte but the racing was brief, a multi-car shunt erupting down the pack on lap one of 334. Fourth-starter Scott Riggs was the instigator, his #10 Valvoline Chevrolet slowing in the pack, everyone checking up behind and several cars running into each other. “This was my fault,” Riggs said. “I missed a shift on the initial start and not only ruined the engine but ruined the whole night and ruined a great shot at a great car and having a great finish.”
“When the dust settled it looked like the Chase for the Nextel Cup could be shaken up tonight, the #97 Irwin/Sharpie Ford of points leader Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon's #24 Dupont Chevrolet both involved. But damage to both cars was mainly cosmetic, unlike Greg Biffle whose #16 National Guard Ford took a heavy hit on the wall. Both Busch and Gordon would spend the early laps of the race running down the field as their teams fixed the cars' fenders. “We got pretty fortunate down there,” said Robbie Loomis, Gordon's crew chief. “Our biggest concern is temperature. It looks like we got the nose and back end fixed up well. We just need some track position.”
The green flew on lap eight only to turn yellow again as backmarker Jeff Fuller found the wall, and when they eventually got going on lap 13 top of that track position in the early laps was Newman. But what was fast becoming a night of carnage erupted again when Robby Gordon and Brian Vickers clashed, Vickers' #25 GMAC Chevrolet hitting the wall so hard that NASCAR was forced to red flag the race to repair the barrier.
After 20 minutes delay the race got underway again with pit stops under caution, and Elliott Sadler's #38 Combos Ford emerged quickest to take the lead when the green flew on lap 31. Fastest on the track though was Kasey Kahne, this year's dominant rookie moving the #9 Mopar UAW/Dodge Dealers Dodge into the lead by lap 42 and then establishing a gap.
Lap 76 saw the yellow out again, and again it was Gordon involved. All night long he had been struggling with a loose car and he finally lost it in turn four, spinning down the bottom of the track where he was hit in the rear by Rusty Wallace's #2 Miller Lite Dodge. “I came off 4 and locked up the brakes trying to stay off the wall,” Gordon said. “Everything seemed to be okay, and right there at the end, boom! I thought 'Okay, that's it. Our night is over.'”
Kahne led the field to the pits and retained his lead as the green flew on lap 81, his rivals now headed by championship second place holder Dale Earnhardt Jr in the #8 Budweiser Chevrolet. When another caution flew on lap 124 following tyre trouble on the #99 Canteen Vending/Kraft Foods Ford of Carl Edwards, Earnhardt timed his restart best to take the lead from the Dodge, earning five vital championship points, but it was a short-lived pleasure and by lap 130 Kahne was back ahead.
Next to feel Charlotte's wrath were championship contenders Jeremy Mayfield and Matt Kenseth. Mayfield's #19 UAW/Dodge Dealers Dodge pitted for a routine stop on lap 171, only to get caught a lap down when just one tour later Kenseth's #17 DeWalt Ford found the wall. Once again Earnhardt beat Kahne away from the restart, but coming fast was the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet of Jimmie Johnson, winner of the May Charlotte race. He led on lap 181, but Kahne clearly had the fastest car in the place and was back in front by lap 188.
Another yellow on lap 210, this time for debris, closed up the field again, and proved good news for Gordon, the highest lap-down runner earning the 'lucky dog' pass to regain the lead lap – suddenly he was 16th. Kahne retained his lead through the pit stops, and soon recovered it after being briefly taken by chase contender Mark Martin's #6 Viagra Ford. But Kasey has been the dominant factor in many a race this season only to lose out in the luck stakes, and so it would prove tonight. When Kevin Harvick's engine expired on lap 229 and Kenseth, Mayfield and Edwards all went off on the #29 Goodwrench Chevrolet's oil, Kahne stayed out during the resultant caution. This was despite his being concerned about a vibration that had appeared on his car, and his fears proved justified when with 63 laps to run the red Dodge blew a front tyre and slammed the wall. Another impressive showing ended with nothing – but Kahne will get his maiden win before long.