No doubt about it. A glance at the race report from Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway would lead you to believe that top two competitors—Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick—slugged it out for the win in the race’s two fastest cars.
Yes, Johnson led 164 of the 400 laps, and Harvick was out front for 100 circuits. Johnson picked up his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory of the 2014 season in the 12th race of the year. Harvick was 1.272 seconds behind him in second place.
Johnson started from the pole after pacing Thursday night’s qualifying. He is still the only driver to win at Charlotte from the top spot on the grid since 1998, and he’s done it three times.
Harvick started 11th after failing to take the green before time expired in the final round of knockout qualifying, but everyone in the garage and the grandstands knew Harvick’s No. 4 Chevrolet was lightning fast, as it has been all year.
So, yes, the best two cars Sunday night at Charlotte finished 1-2. But to assume that the race distilled into a battle between Johnson and Harvick is to ignore the complexity and intrigue that permeated the event before Johnson took the checkered flag.
First, the obvious. There were 34 lead changes among nine drivers—and that with an opening green-flag run that lasted 108 laps. Brad Keselowski led 43 laps, Jamie McMurray 34 and Matt Kenseth 33, though none of the three had a car that could keep up with Johnson or Harvick on speed alone.
Nevertheless, all three of those drivers had winning chances.
Keselowski delayed his final pit stop until Lap 344, using his acknowledged talent for saving fuel to best advantage before bringing his car to pit road. From that point, Keselowski could have made it to the end of the race without stopping again.
But a mistake on that crucial pit stop ruined his chances.
“We had the strategy and very close to having the speed to win the race, and then on that late-race pit stop, we left the right front wheel loose, and that ended our chance to win,” Keselowski said.
Keselowski had to bring his car back to pit road, negating the tactic he and crew chief had devised.
“We rebounded to finish 10th, which I guess isn’t bad, all things considered,” Keselowski said. “The crew gave me a great car. I drove my butt off, but we just didn’t get it done on pit road.”
Like Keselowski, Carl Edwards’ No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team came up with a strategy that put Edwards in position to win the race. Unlike Keselowski, the 99 team didn’t make a critical mistake.
In Edwards’ case, fate intervened in the form of a caution flag for Alex Bowman’s accident in Turn 3 on Lap 379, three circuits after Edwards had taken the lead with enough fuel to get to the end of the race. With the field bunched for a restart on Lap 384, Edwards was no match for Johnson or Harvick and finished fourth.
“That was probably as good as we deserved to finish, but (crew chief) Jimmy (Fennig) made that call, and I thought we were going to win it,” Edwards said.
Kenseth passed Jeff Gordon for the lead moments after the Lap 384 restart and pulled away temporarily. But Johnson, who had restarted third, gave chase, and Kenseth wasn’t able to make his car fast enough or wide enough in the closing laps to hold off the six-time champion.
Ultimately, Johnson passed Kenseth on Lap 392, and Harvick followed as the race neared its conclusion.
Accordingly, Keselowski, Edwards and Kenseth became footnotes to an event that, on paper, looked like a two-man battle between the two pre-race favorites.
But those who simply read the box score will never know how close those three footnotes came to being headlines.