CONCORD, N.C.—When the smoke cleared, the dust settled, and the fists stopped flying on Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, three of the most high-profile drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series were back where they started.
Six days earlier, in a race at Kansas Speedway fraught with peril for Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup contenders, six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, brash 2012 champion Brad Keselowski and perennial most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered the severest of consequences.
All three wrecked in the Hollywood Casino 400. Leaving Kansas, Keselowski was 10th in the Chase standings, Earnhardt 11th and Johnson 12th, with a cut to the top eight Chase drivers coming Oct. 19 at Talladega.
In a Saturday-night race at Charlotte that could have provided redemption for the three drivers, none found it.
Early in the race, the shifter in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Chevrolet broke off in the driver’s hand. Requiring a push off pit road after his crew attempted repairs, Earnhardt lost a lap on the track and never regained it. He finished 20th.
When caution slowed the race on Lap 327 of 334, crew chief Chad Knaus told Johnson to bring the No. 48 Chevy to pit road for fresh tires, a strategic error as it turned out. Johnson had been running fourth, but with two laps left, he restarted 10th behind nine cars that had stayed on track under the yellow.
In the mad dash that followed, Johnson was shuffled back to 17th and finished there.
Keselowski was fifth for that same restart on Lap 333, but contact in the first corner with Denny Hamlin’s No.11 Toyota sent the Blue Deuce dropping through the field like a stone. Keselowski finished 16th but his night was far from over.
On the cool-down lap, Keselowski deliberately clipped Hamlin’s Camry. Near the entrance to pit road, he slammed into Kenseth’s Toyota. Once out of their cars, Keselowski and Hamlin screamed at each other over intervening crewmen and NASCAR officials.
As Keselowski was walking between haulers, Kenseth jumped him, angry that Keselowski had hit his car after Kenseth had removed his head-and-neck restraint and unbuckled his harness. It was Keselowski, however, who received an invitation to the NASCAR transporter, where he was asked to explain his actions.
The bottom line? Johnson and Earnhardt ended the night tied for last among Chase drivers, 26 points behind Kasey Kahne in eighth place. Keselowski is 10th in the standings, 19 points behind Kahne, and may face sanctions that would drop him even farther back.
Realistically, though, the task at hand is clear-cut for Johnson, Keselowski and Earnhardt: either win at Talladega or face the harsh reality that the Chase will continue without them.
You have three drivers with the same objective, but there’s one major problem. There’s only one trophy and only one golden ticket to the Eliminator round of the Chase.
And it’s not as if Johnson, Keselowski and Earnhardt will be the only three drivers going all-out for the victory at the 2.66-mile superspeedway. Kahne has a one-point lead over Kenseth for the final transfer spot to the next round of the Chase, and the best course of action for both drivers is to race hard and stay as close to the front as possible.
There are 31 other non-Chase drivers for whom Talladega is an expanded window of opportunity. As history has shown us on numerous occasions, the restrictor plate is a great equalizer, and drivers who might need divine intervention to win at an open-motor track can take a checkered flag in the draft at NASCAR’s longest closed course.
Earnhardt has five wins at Talladega, but none since 2004. Johnson and Keselowski have won there twice each, most recently in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
But if their path to the next round of the Chase is clearly defined, it is also more complicated that it would be at an open-motor track.
Perhaps that’s why emotions reached the boiling point at Charlotte, as the stark prospect of having to win at Talladega to keep championship hopes alive came sharply into focus for three of the sport’s biggest stars.