Two drivers. Two vastly different reactions.
Out of time, Jimmie Johnson crossed the finish line in fourth place. Out of his mouth, a few terse expletives as the checkered flag waved above him.
From Matt Kenseth, a sigh of relief. After chasing Johnson for the vast majority of Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kenseth rolled home third, the beneficiary of a late debris caution and a poor restart on the part of the five-time champion.
The net effect was a one-point gain for Kenseth, which Johnson found tough to swallow after the race.
“Did he lead a lap?” Johnson asked incredulously after climbing from his car on pit road.
In fact, Kenseth had led a lap—one lap. When Ryan Newman brought his car to pit road on Lap 130 during a long cycle of green-flag stops, he handed the lead to Kenseth, who delayed his own pit stop to gain the one-point bonus for leading.
That was the last time Kenseth would lead, but the bonus was already in his column.
Johnson, on the other hand, led 130 laps and was maintaining a two-second margin over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne when NASCAR called a debris caution on Lap 307. The yellow brought the lead-lap cars to pit road.
Kahne and Jeff Gordon changed right-side tires only and left pit road in the top two positions. Johnson changed all four tires and was third off pit road. Kenseth likewise took four new tires and restarted beside Johnson in fourth.
The restart proved Johnson’s undoing. He slipped back to seventh after Kahne put the power down on Lap 312 and couldn’t recover. That’s why driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet had a few choice words for his fourth-place finish—not to mention a few “What-ifs?”
“I pushed the No. 5 (Kahne) off into (Turn) 1,” Johnson said. “He didn’t get the best restart, and something to do with that combo got me off the bottom (of the track), and a couple of cars got into the side of me.
“If we could have come out second (from the pit stop), which was really close with the No. 24 (Gordon) and start on the front row, I think it would have been a much different result for us, but it didn’t happen. We led some laps tonight, had a good car.”
The “had a good car” assertion was a vast understatement. Johnson had a race-winning car but, uncharacteristically, failed to close the deal. Instead of wrestling the series lead from Kenseth halfway through the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Johnson saw his deficit to Kenseth grow from three to four points.
For those who might scoff at a one-point gain, ask Carl Edwards what he would have given for one more point after his heartbreaking tiebreaker loss to Tony Stewart in the 2011 championship battle.
For his part, Kenseth knew he had dodged a bullet, especially after a lackluster qualifying effort that earned him the 20th starting position, worst among the 13 Chase drivers.
“Yeah, certainly glad we’re still leading,” Kenseth said after the race. “Tonight was a big positive for us. It was a little bit of a struggle this weekend, more than we anticipated. I didn’t get a good lap qualifying, and that was really the start of us being behind tonight.”
What was relief for Kenseth was frustration for Johnson, but both drivers pulled away incrementally from those closest to them in the standings. Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch entered the race third, fourth and fifth in the standings.
Busch finished fifth, Harvick sixth and Gordon seventh—and all three lost ground to the two drivers they’ll have to beat to win the championship.
The erosion was relatively small, but as the number of remaining races diminishes, small losses in points seem more significant.
Is the Chase a two-man race at this point? No. Will it be if the trend continues? Soon.
That’s the consolation Johnson can take from a race he felt he should have won, as Kenseth smiles that wry smile of his, knowing he stole another week in the points lead.