Forget about next week at Talladega and the following week at Martinsville being the wild card races on the Chase schedule that are suppose to have a big hand in determining this season’s champion. After the dust settled Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Chase for the Sprint Cup title became a little more defined.
It wasn’t as much which drivers put themselves in a better position to make a run for the title over the next five races, but more about the drivers who may have taken themselves out of contention. Five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson entered the race riding a ton of momentum, thanks to his previous week’s win at Kansas that moved him within four points of the top spot after the first four races.
All of that changed very quickly for the Lowe’s driver as with only 18 laps remaining, he had worked his way back up to seventh when he and Ryan Newman got together. The contact sent Johnson’s Chevrolet up the track where he hit head-on with the outside wall. It was one of the hardest hits in recent memory as the momentum of the hit forced the rear end of his car up in the air.
Fortunately for Johnson, all of NASCAR’s safety precautions from the safer walls to the Hans device and the safety belts that he wore worked exactly as intended, enabling him to walk away from the crash. His car was done for the night and there is a good chance that another record-setting championship may now be out of his reach.
Johnson entered the race in third place, trailing leader Carl Edwards by only four points, but his 34th place finish dropped him five spots to eighth. More importantly, he now trails Edwards by 35 points. It’s hard to say if 35 points is too big of a deficit to overcome with the new point system, but with only five races left before the champion is crowned, the seven drivers in front of him would have to all but collapse for him to get back into the hunt.
Johnson’s drop in the standings is also a bad sign for Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick who has made the Sprint Cup championship his private property in recent years. He not only has the five championship trophies from Johnson’s run, but also has four from fellow Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon. Like Johnson, Gordon and HMS teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. have also experienced a Chase this season that they would soon forget.
Gordon entered the Chase as one of the hottest drivers on the circuit, but has yet to post the kind of finishes that he did at the end of the regular season. Earnhardt Jr., on the other hand, barely slid into the 12-man Chase field and has yet to really challenge for a win. He sits in ninth in the standings, 60 points from the lead, while Gordon is stuck in 11th, 66 points from the top.
HMS was not by itself in taking a big hit in its quest for the title, Penske Racing’s Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch also dug themselves a deeper hole to try and climb out of at the halfway point of the Chase. Keselowski entered the race in fourth, only 11 points off the lead, but a poor handling car gave him a 16th place finish that dropped him two spots in the standings and he now trails Carl Edwards at the top by 25 points.
His teammate Kurt Busch also had a rough night at Charlotte as he finished 13th, which dropped him one place in the standings to seventh. The one place drop also cost him 11 points as he now sits 27 points behind the leader.
CHASE NOTES: Carl Edwards’s third-place finish at CMS kept him on top of the standings and increased his point lead four points over second-place Kevin Harvick. The lead is now only a very slim five points, but Edwards is at a place he has never been before. He has been on top of the standings for 17 weeks this season, but this is the latest in the season that he has ever held down the top spot.
Race Preview Event : Good Sam RV Parks & Resorts 500 Track: Talladega Superspeedway (2.66-mile tri-oval, 33 degrees of banking in the turns) Date: Oct. 23, 2 p.m. TV: ESPN Radio: MRN Defending Champion: Clint Bowyer