NASCAR: Round 13 – Coca-Cola 600, Charlotte – May 30

At the start of the season, Jimmie Johnson had the kind of domination that hasn’t been seen since Michael Schumacher’s grip on F1 made Grand Prix racing dull. Fans had almost started turning off Nascar events because it was a foregone conclusion that Jimmie would win the race and another Sprint Cup title. But just a couple of months later, and bad luck is catching up with Jimmie and now he can’t seem to catch a break at any price.

Johnson suffered overheating problems early in the race, led briefly around the hundred lap mark, but then got loose on lap 166 and collided with Denny Hamlin which Hamlin off into the grass and brought out the third of eight yellow flags. Johnson suffered a blown tyre on the encounter and needed urgent work to correct the handling of the 48 at the ensuing pit stops which put him down to 25th at the back of the lead lap and at risk of going a lap down.

Finally, even this meagre level of luck abandoned him. The loose handling of the normally formidable 48 ended up putting him into the wall (both inside and outside varieties) on lap 272, causing heavy damage and bringing out the fifth yellow of the evening. The team scrambled and replaced virtually the entire front end of the car, putting him back out on track on lap 307 in the vain hope that some massive on-track conflagration would make it worth his while in the positions, but he would still end up a lowly 37th, sending him tumbling down three places to 7th in the Sprint Cup positions. It’s still very far off failing to qualify, but he won’t wont to have many more weekends like this in the remaining half of the Chase. “We’re just racing,” said Johnson afterwards. “We’ve had some bad luck and made some mistakes. I’ll be back next week.”

So with Johnson out of the way, who was having a good day at the races?

Ryan Newman led the race initially, but it was the number 2 car of Kurt Busch that really set the pace and assumed the lead on lap 12 and led through to green flag pit stops around lap 50. He’d just resumed the lead when Juan Montoya’s car got loose and sustained damage against the same inside wall at the exit of turn two that would later put an end to Johnson. That brought out the first caution of the day on lap 61; everyone pitted again and Denny Hamlin emerged out on front, but that lasted a single lap before Kurt was back in the lead. He was emerging as the car to beat at this admittedly early stage.

Kurt’s lead lasted through to the next caution on lap 91 which was the result of Marcos Ambrose getting loose and hitting the wall – the right-rear damage effectively ended his hopes of a good result for the day, although he was able to rejoin the race. At the restart, it was Johnson’s period to dominate, while Kurt found even second place impossible to retain as his brother Kyle came on strong. Johnson’s brief moment of strong running soon faded as the cooling evening conditions adversely affected his handling, and the Busch Boys duly took over the top two spots from the 48 – Kyle out in the lead for the first time in the evening.

Kyle resumed the lead on lap 150 after green flag pit stops had cycled through, with a sizeable lead over Kurt at this point, but Kurt reversed that after the next caution (caused by Johnson’s clash with Hamlin on lap 166) after Kyle ended up colliding with Brad Keselowski trying to exit pit road and getting handed a drive-thru penalty that dumped him down into 24th position and leaving him with a bent steering wheel for his pains.

Freed from brotherly oversight, Kurt led from the restart through to the next caution (for debris) on lap 213. Clint Bowyer edged Kurt in the ensuing pit stops, but he was easy to dispatch at the restart and now Kurt was away, puling out a daunting 2s lead over David Reutimann during this mid-section of the race.

Kurt briefly dropped to second behind Matt Kenseth during the pit stops under the yellow following Johnson’s smash, but swiftly took over the lead again on lap 278; Kurt had just lost the lead to Jamie McMurray as the sixth caution (for Robbie Gordon hitting the wall) came out, but the caution and pit stops enabled him to take the restart in the lead once more. The blue deuce was showing no signs of fading.

The re-start was a stuttering affair as Greg Biffle immediately his the wall to bring out caution number seven on lap 308, but when things did get underway properly once more he was able to hold off McMurray at the restart on lap 313. He held the lead for the next 26 laps, but then the handling started to fade and McMurray was able to pass him for the lead coming out of turn 229 on lap 339, and he held the top spot through to the next round of green flag pit stops.

This gave Dale Earnhardt Jr. the lead for ten or so laps: Dale hadn’t been having a particularly promising evening, and had been suffering from overheating on lap 235 that required an out-of-sync pit stop to get the grill of the 88 cleared of a fair amount of debris as well as getting fresh tyres. That out-of-sync strategy meant that he stayed out and inherited the lead through to lap 366, but he had to pay back that pit stop eventually and it pit him right back to the midfield all over again.

That put Jamie McMurray back in front with 30 to go, now with dreams of landing a Ganassi 1-2 along with Dario Franchitti’s victory over in Indianapolis. He had a strong lead over Kurt, but his momentum was broken by the final caution and round of pit stops of the day that began on lap 377 with Marcos Ambrose losing control and crashing off turn 2, briefly getting all four wheels off the ground.

McMurray’s final pit stop was sluggish just when he needed all possible speed, and it meant that Kurt emerged ahead of him on track – albeit behind drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Ryan Newman who had opted to stay out. But this gambit was clearly a mistake and Kurt led the charge past them, with McMurray close behind and brother Kyle once again battling his way back to the sharp end after his earlier problems, and despite still further problems in pit lane in the latest stop.

The three of them were clear of traffic with 15 to go, and this was the kind of distance that Kurt’s car was able to run best over. McMurray ran him close but Kurt was able to hold him off and claim the chequered flag, thwarting Ganassi’s plan for a double Memorial Day victory and handing some consolation to Penske whose cars had hit so many problems over at Indianapolis.

That gives Kurt a big boost in the Sprint Cup standings – he’s now up three places to 6th, one ahead of the ill-starred Jimmie Johnson; while the third place was also good for brother Kyle, as it maintains his momentum further up the table after championship standings leader Kevin Harvick had a decent but fairly anonymous outing at Charlotte, ending up just outside the top ten thanks to getting the wave-around in the caution that followed Greg Biffle’s crash following an unscheduled additional pit stop that had put him well off the pace.

Race result

 	
FIN  ST   CAR  DRIVER              MAKE      PTS/BNS  LAPS 
1    2    2    Kurt Busch          Dodge     195/10      
2    27   1    Jamie McMurray      Chevrolet 175/5       
3    9    18   Kyle Busch          Toyota    170/5       
4    11   5    Mark Martin         Chevrolet 160/0       
5    6    00   David Reutimann     Toyota    160/5       
6    15   24   Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet 155/5       
7    10   33   Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet 151/5       
8    33   98   Paul Menard         Ford      142/0       
9    1    39   Ryan Newman         Chevrolet 143/5       
10   16   17   Matt Kenseth        Ford      139/5       
11   23   29   Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet 130/0       
12   4    9    Kasey Kahne         Ford      127/0       
13   8    20   Joey Logano         Toyota    129/5       
14   18   43   A.J. Allmendinger   Ford      121/0       
15   26   14   Tony Stewart        Chevrolet 123/5       
16   31   99   Carl Edwards        Ford      115/0       
17   14   77   Sam Hornish Jr.     Dodge     112/0       
18   7    11   Denny Hamlin        Toyota    114/5       
19   32   78   Regan Smith         Chevrolet 106/0       
20   37   12   Brad Keselowski     Dodge     108/5       
21   39   19   Elliott Sadler      Ford      100/0       
22   24   88   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet 102/5       
23   3    56   Martin Truex Jr.    Toyota    99/5        
24   35   6    David Ragan         Ford      96/5        
25   12   31   Jeff Burton         Chevrolet 88/0        
26   28   37   David Gilliland     Ford      90/5     398  
27   25   21   Bill Elliott        Ford      82/0     397  
28   41   38   Travis Kvapil       Ford      79/0     397  
29   13   83   Casey Mears         Toyota    76/0     396  
30   21   82   Scott Speed         Toyota    73/0     395  
31   38   71   Bobby Labonte       Chevrolet 70/0     395  
32   40   16   Greg Biffle         Ford      67/0     394  
33   36   7    Robby Gordon        Toyota    64/0     394  
34   43   46   J.J. Yeley          Dodge     61/0     393  
35   42   34   Kevin Conway *      Ford      58/0     393  
36   34   47   Marcos Ambrose      Toyota    55/0     375  
37   5    48   Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet 57/5     364  
38   20   42   Juan Montoya        Chevrolet 49/0     306  
39   19   87   Joe Nemechek        Toyota    46/0     46   
40   29   164  Todd Bodine         Toyota    43/0     41   
41   22   36   Johnny Sauter       Chevrolet 40/0     37   
42   30   55   Michael McDowell    Toyota    37/0     34   
43   17   66   Dave Blaney         Toyota    34/0     25   

Sprint Cup standings

POS +/-  DRIVER                POINTS  BEHIND  ST  P  W  T5  T10
1   --   Kevin Harvick         1898    Leader  13  0  1  4   9
2   --   Kyle Busch            1869    -29     13  1  2  4   8
3   --   Matt Kenseth          1781    -117    13  0  0  4   8
4   +2   Jeff Gordon           1760    -138    13  0  0  5   6
5   --   Denny Hamlin          1732    -166    13  0  3  5   5
6   +3   Kurt Busch            1726    -172    13  1  2  5   7
7   -3   Jimmie Johnson        1694    -204    13  0  3  5   7
8   --   Jeff Burton           1657    -241    13  0  0  3   5
9   -2   Greg Biffle           1648    -250    13  0  0  2   8
10  +1   Mark Martin           1635    -263    13  1  0  5   6
11  -1   Carl Edwards          1602    -296    13  0  0  1   6
12  +1   Ryan Newman           1547    -351    13  1  1  2   5
+====== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS ========
13  +2   Clint Bowyer          1543    -355    13  0  0  1   7
14  -2   Martin Truex Jr.      1533    -365    13  1  0  1   4
15  +2   Jamie McMurray        1521    -377    13  2  1  4   5
16  -2   Tony Stewart          1520    -378    13  1  0  1   4
17  -1   Dale Earnhardt Jr.    1493    -405    13  1  0  1   3
18  --   Joey Logano           1461    -437    13  1  0  2   5
19  +1   David Reutimann       1422    -476    13  0  0  3   3
20  -1   Juan Montoya          1371    -527    13  0  0  4   6
21  --   Kasey Kahne           1364    -534    13  0  0  2   3
22  +1   Paul Menard           1359    -539    13  0  0  1   2
23  +2   A.J. Allmendinger     1323    -575    13  1  0  0   1
24  -2   David Ragan           1323    -575    13  0  0  0   1
25  -1   Brad Keselowski       1318    -580    13  0  0  0   0
26  --   Scott Speed           1258    -640    13  0  0  0   1
27  --   Brian Vickers         1158    -740    11  0  0  0   3
28  +1   Elliott Sadler        1150    -748    13  0  0  0   0
29  +1   Sam Hornish Jr.       1125    -773    13  0  0  0   0
30  -2   Marcos Ambrose        1123    -775    13  0  0  0   1
31  --   Regan Smith           1116    -782    13  0  0  0   0
32  --   Travis Kvapil         1064    -834    13  0  0  0   0
33  --   Bobby Labonte         1015    -883    13  0  0  0   0
34  --   Robby Gordon          963     -935    13  0  0  0   0
35  --   David Gilliland       907     -991    11  0  0  0   0
36  --   Kevin Conway*         801     -1097   12  0  0  0   0
37  --   Mike Bliss            621     -1277   9   0  0  0   1
38  +2   Joe Nemechek          509     -1389   12  0  0  0   0
39  -1   Max Papis             499     -1399   9   0  0  0   0
40  -1   David Stremme         474     -1424   6   0  0  0   0
41  --   Dave Blaney           456     -1442   11  0  0  0   0
42  --   Michael McDowell      385     -1513   10  0  0  0   0
43  --   Bill Elliott          372     -1526   4   0  0  0   0
44  --   Casey Mears           331     -1567   4   0  0  0   0
45  --   Boris Said            252     -1646   4   0  0  0   0
46  --   Michael Waltrip       200     -1698   3   0  0  0   0
47  --   Terry Cook*           164     -1734   3   0  0  0   0
48  --   Robert Richardson Jr. 155     -1743   2   0  0  0   0
49  --   Aric Almirola         154     -1744   4   0  0  0   0
50  +1   Johnny Sauter         154     -1744   4   0  0  0   0
51  +1   J.J. Yeley            153     -1745   3   0  0  0   0
52  -2   Reed Sorenson         120     -1778   3   0  0  0   0
53  +2   Todd Bodine           89      -1809   2   0  0  0   0
54  -1   Scott Riggs           79      -1819   1   0  0  0   0
55  -1   John Andretti         49      -1849   1   0  0  0   0
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