It has never happened in the nine-year history of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup that the points lead has changed hands at the fall Charlotte race. That could all change Saturday night.
Five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson started the Chase in second, tied with Kyle Busch in the points, three markers behind leader Matt Kenseth. He dropped to third, 11 points back, after Kenseth won the postseason opener at Chicagoland. After a respectable fourth-place finish at New Hampshire, he remained third, but fell 18 points off the pace. After a win at Dover and a sixth-place showing at Kansas last weekend, the California native has whittled the points lead back down to three.
That alone should scare his closest competitors, especially headed into Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC) at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The 1.5-mile track just 30 minutes away from his house is one of Johnson’s strongest venues. In 24 starts, he’s collected six wins, tying him with Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip with the most wins at the track. In addition, he’s compiled 11 top fives, 15 top 10s, three poles and 1,439 laps led, leading at least one lap in 20 of his 24 starts. He’s won more races and led more laps at just two tracks: Dover (eight; 2,704) and Martinsville (eight; 2,327).
“The track has been really good to us over the years and I certainly need another strong performance there the way things are going in the Chase right now,” Johnson said.
In addition, he has the highest driver rating (110.0), best average running position (8.1), best average starting position (6.5), most quality passes (879), best pass differential (198), most laps in top 15 (5,255) and highest percentage of laps in the top 15 (86.1) among all active drivers over the last 17 races at Charlotte. He also has the second highest number of fastest laps (549), behind only Kasey Kahne.
In the May 2013 race, he finished 22nd, while finishing third in the fall event last year. Johnson is the most recent of four drivers to win back-to-back fall Charlotte races when he won the event in 2004-05. He joined Junior Johnson (1962-63), Fred Lorenzen (1964-65) and Bobby Allison (1971-72) as the only drivers to accomplish the feat.
Johnson is one of only six drivers to win the fall Charlotte race and go on to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title that season, doing so in 2009 — his last victory at the track. Other drivers to win the event and the season title include Richard Petty (1975); Dale Earnhardt (1980, 1986); Darrell Waltrip (1981); Terry Labonte (1996) and Bobby Labonte (2000).
In nine Chase races at Charlotte Johnson has improved his points position twice — after winning the 2004 race he moved up from ninth in the standings to eighth and in 2006 he gained a spot from eighth to seventh after placing second in the race. However, in 2011, he experienced a different kind of luck when he wrecked late in the event and was relegated to a 34th-place finish. The unfortunate incident dropped him from third in the standings to eighth, and played a big role in breaking his string of five consecutive championships.
Regardless of how the race plays out, Johnson’s excited to be back at home in Charlotte where he will be surrounded by those most important to him and can sleep in his own bed.
“I’ll be around my immediate family and then around my extended family with Hendrick Motorsports and Lowe’s,” Johnson said. “There will be a lot of Hendrick Motorsports employees there, too.”
No matter what happens Saturday night, history says whoever sits atop the standings following the race has a good shot at hoisting the championship trophy a little more than a month later in South Florida. In six of the nine Chases the points leader leaving Charlotte has gone on to claim the season title. Johnson’s done it three times (2008-10).
Can Vicker’s win in pink?
When Brian Vickers lines up for Friday night’s Dollar General 300 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) at Charlotte Motor Speedway his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Dollar General Toyota will be sporting a different color – pink. His race car is undergoing the color change in support of breast cancer awareness.
“This week is huge for (Dollar General), and they’ve done a great job focusing on breast cancer awareness efforts surrounding the race,” Vickers said. “They’ve got a really big group of supportive people in town for the Dollar General 300, and we would love nothing more than to drive our pink DG Toyota into Victory Lane to celebrate with them on Friday.”
After finishing 29th at Kansas on Saturday, Vickers fell to sixth in the points standings, 67 points behind leader Austin Dillon. Perhaps the change from his usual yellow paint scheme will provide an extra burst of luck at Charlotte where he finished in the top 15 in his last nine starts, dating back to 2003.
Among all points-eligible drivers in the NASCAR Nationwide Series Vickers ranks first at the 1.5-mile track in the following categories: driver rating (105.2), fastest early in a run (176.694 mph), fastest late in a run (173.980 mph), fastest laps run (73), green-flag speed (175.066 mph), laps led (43) and speed in traffic (174.072 mph).
In the four races previous to last Saturday, Vickers put together a four-week run of top-10 finishes. During the stretch he posted finishes of seventh, sixth, seventh and fourth. Through 29 races, he’s compiled 13 top fives and 18 top 10s.
Vickers’ Dollar General-sponsored Toyota is not the only thing that will be covered in pink this weekend. The discount retailer is working with the track to provide a pink Dollar General 300 pace car, pink grandstand tickets, a pink start/finish line and a pink pit wall.