CONCORD, N.C._ Think it bothers Jamie McMurray that he did not make this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup? Not when you consider he won the season-opening Daytona 500, the mid-season Brickyard 400 and had seven top-3 finishes. Winning two of the pinnacle races on the NASCAR schedule, McMurray has stepped up when it mattered most and Saturday night's Bank of America 500 was no different.
While Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson battled for the top-spot late in the race, McMurray methodically closed the gap and put himself in position to be a contender. Not content with finishing second in May’s Coca-Cola 600, McMurray capitalized on a late-race restart to score his third victory of the season.
Lining up on the inside of the front row for the final restart of the night on Lap 313, McMurray was able to beat Busch on the inside to take the lead headed down the backstretch.
“You know, I went through turns one and two wide open and I got a little bit of a run on Kyle and I heard the spotter say, ‘He's still there. He's still there. Clear,’” explained McMurray. “And as soon as I heard ‘Clear,’ it's amazing when his front bumper brakes the plane of your rear bumper, how you feel the car lurch forward, because there's so much drag when they are side drafting you. As soon as I heard the spotter say ‘clear’ and I felt that, that's a pretty good feeling, I promise you.”
Despite being nearly unstoppable on the high side on restarts the entire race, Busch was unable to stick with the No. 1 Chevrolet and missed out on the win as a result.
To say Busch was disappointed with Saturday night’s results would be a gross understatement. Coming off an engine failure in California, Busch knew his championship hopes were dashed, but hoped to spoil the Chase by winning as many races as he could.
Leading six times for 217 laps, Busch certainly had the dominant car in Saturday night’s 500-mile race, but in the end could not close the deal. Following the final restart, Busch watched as McMurray drove away and was forced into a fierce battle for second with Johnson.
“It’s very, very disappointing,” Busch said. “Had the best car all night and gave it up. Just flat out gave it away and it’s real, real frustrating to not come out of here with a win at a track that I have yet to win at and have been so fast at. Then again tonight was really fast. I’m sorry to all the guys, I mean everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing, everybody in the engine shop, chassis shop – it’s my job to come out here and get a win for these guys and I’m the one behind the wheel ultimately and didn’t make the right adjustments and gave it up.”
While Johnson was able to battle for the second spot in the closing laps, it appeared his night had taken a turn for the worse early in the going when he spun his No. 48 Chevrolet on his own accord. After taking four tires on the first round of pit stops, Johnson was mired in traffic. Trying to work to the outside of Bobby Labonte, Johnson lost the car in Turn 2, spinning down the track towards the inside wall.
Locking up the brakes, Johnson was able to avoid making contact with the wall, but blew all four tires. Trying to salvage his car and avoid further damage, Johnson crept towards pit road.
Once in pits, the crew only changed the two right side tires, since he was about to go a lap down. Crew chief Chad Knaus told his driver to take off, but warned the left sides were still flat.
Back on the track, but with two flat tires, Johnson again slowly made his way around the speedway, losing time to the pace car as it brought the field to the one to go signal. In danger of going a lap down, the team changed the left side tires and sent the No. 48 back out ahead of the field, keeping him on the lead lap. Knaus was very unhappy with NASCAR in determining the length of the caution, saying “Bulls&*t NASCAR.”
Restarting 36th, Johnson methodically worked his way back to the front, led 15 laps on the day and made the most of a terrible start to the day.
“It's amazing what goes through your mind when you're sliding sideways on the back straightaway,” Johnson said. “I saw my hard work for the year and dreams of being a five time champion go away, and fortunately I got the car turned away from the inside wall. At that point kind of scared me straight. Like, okay, just stay smooth, we can salvage a decent finish out of today. Maybe we don't win, maybe we don't be in the Top 5, but I know we can get a good finish out of this if we can keep our composure and we did.”
Denny Hamlin was able to keep pace with Johnson in the Chase by bringing his No. 11 Toyota home in the fourth spot. Not a factor throughout much of the evening, Hamlin also overcame an early setback when he flat-spotted his tires avoiding the spinning Ryan Newman on Lap 3.
Leading only one lap on the day, Hamlin lost a bit of ground in the championship hunt, but is headed to one of his best tracks on the schedule – Martinsville. With five races now remaining in the Chase, Hamlin trails Johnson by 41 points.
“It was a battle,” Hamlin said. “We were stuck from third to fifth all day and just couldn’t get it quite right. There was some stuff we put in our car that we just needed to fine tune a little bit. We just didn’t have enough time to work on it in practice, but I think we have a good direction from here on out. We kept them in our sights, but that’s all we could do. We were a little bit off today, but it’s important we get the solid top-5 finishes like this.”
With Chasers Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton having their share of struggles Saturday night, the Chase field has narrowed down to three drivers – Johnson, Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.
The driver of the No. 29 Chevrolet was not without his own struggles on the night. Thanks to slow pit stops – something that has bitten this time on a number of occasions in the Chase – Harvick lit up the radio with a string of comments that would make George Carlin cringe. Despite, the criticism of the car and the crew, Harvick was able to fight back to an eighth place finish and is now 77 points behind Johnson for the title.
Next week, the series heads to the paper-clip track in Martinsville, Va., where Johnson and Hamlin have won the last eight races. After racing on one of NASCAR’s smallest track, the Chase then heads to the biggest and most open race on the schedule, Talladega. So, while three drivers may realistically have a shot at the title leaving Charlotte, the next two weeks could jumble the Chase beyond recognition.
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