Biggest Winners and Losers from NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Charlotte
Jeff Gordon led the field to the green flag in Saturday night's Bank of America 500, the middle point of this year's version of NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
With championship standings that had tightened incrementally over the previous few weeks, it was Gordon's next best chance—as well as a handful of other Chase-qualified drivers—to slide closer to the lead held by Matt Kenseth and close-trailing Jimmie Johnson.
Of course, Kenseth and Johnson yielded little of said opportunity during Saturday night's race despite the race win going to a driver not in contention to battle for the season title. Click to find out who gained the most and who left feeling the worst after a Saturday night showdown at NASCAR's home track.
Winner: Brad Keselowski
If you were looking for a finish that was a near carbon copy of the last Sprint Cup race at Charlotte in May, Brad Keselowski handed it to you.
Much like Kevin Harvick in the Coca-Cola 600, Keselowski roared to the win by passing Kasey Kahne as the laps remaining clicked toward single digits. The No. 2 led just two laps during the 500-mile race before gaining on Kahne and passing him for good with nine laps left.
The win was a hefty relief for Keselowski, the sport's defending champion, that ended a 37-race winless streak dating to September of 2012. It also marked his first in the series as a Ford driver.
Loser: Kasey Kahne
Kasey Kahne has won twice in 2013, so it is not as if the entire season is a loss. But both Kahne's start to the Chase (he went four races without a single top-10 finish), and now his second consecutive loss of a race win at Charlotte in the race's final laps, has to gnaw deeply at his competitive desire.
Kahne lost another one at Charlotte Saturday night when Brad Keselowski caught and passed him for good with nine laps to go. Kahne had led 138 laps—a race high—before Keselowski's strength in the final run was too much.
It was all too similar to May in the Coca-Cola 600 when Kahne lost the lead during a late pit stop and could never get back around Kevin Harvick. Harvick led the final 11 laps to score the win after Kahne had led a race high 161 laps.
Winner: Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth was in trouble after starting 20th Saturday night.
"We were real tight early and I couldn’t really go anywhere in traffic," Kenseth said.
Middling around 15th, Kenseth was facing the realistic possibility of losing the point lead to Jimmie Johnson. That's not exactly the best scenario for any driver going against the best ever in Chase-style championship racing.
Fortunately, Kenseth's crew chief Jason Ratcliff got things turned around.
"(Jason) got it where it was really good—we were just really behind most of the night trying to catch up," Kenseth said. "It was my fault for qualifying bad to start with."
Kenseth wound up leading a single lap and finishing third—enough to actually gain a single point on Johnson.
Quotes obtained firsthand from NASCAR transcripts.
Loser: Charlotte Motor Speedway
Blame it on NASCAR's inability to find a fix for dreaded aero handling issues, or blame it on the repaving job of Charlotte Motor Speedway a handful of years ago. Or, blame it on both.
Whatever it is, not even the "World's Largest HDTV" can make NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing at CMS an affair worth writing home about. The fact is showing mightily in the heavy amount of tickets that went unsold for Saturday night's race.
And who can blame race fans? Saturday night's race featured very little action until a five-or-so lap duel near the end between Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne. Close racing was often non-existent and drivers never seemed to struggle with maintaining control.
The laps may be edge-of-your-seat from the perspective of the race driver, but to the fans in the stands, the product is lagging mightily.
Winner: Kyle Larson
His debut ended in the garage with a 37th-place finish, but there's no denying the first race of Kyle Larson's Sprint Cup career showed why Chip Ganassi feels the gamble of moving a 21-year-old driver with relatively little NASCAR experience to the sport's big show isn't much of a gamble at all.
Larson, driving the No. 51 entry for Harry Scott Jr. (the car was built by Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, however), started 21st at Charlotte and was quickly a mainstay in the top 15 of the race before his engine gave out.
Larson completed 247 laps in his debut.
Loser: Jeff Gordon
Saturday night had all of the makings of being Jeff Gordon's night to pull within fighting distance in the point standings of leaders Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson. He had the pole, confidence from a May run at Charlotte and budding optimism after an unexpectedly strong finish at Kansas just a week prior.
It all indeed started well for Gordon as he led the race's first 26 laps. But when the caution came out for J.J. Yeley's wall contact, Gordon took on four tires during a pit stop while many others took two. It was the last time he would lead all night.
He battled a tight race car much of the evening and still managed a seventh-place finish from it all. However, Johnson and Kenseth both finished ahead of him to incrementally increase their leads as the Chase front-runners. That's the result Gordon hoped to avoid.
Winner: Kevin Harvick
Much like Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick probably walked away from Charlotte Saturday night feeling like he had a chance to do more than a sixth-place finish after starting second. He wound up ceding a few points to both Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson.
But Harvick made a late run through the field that mitigated his loss and kept him pretty solidly in contention to make a title run should the front two stumble.
Harvick's sixth-place run was a boon because he had averaged a running position of 11th on Saturday night and had fallen to 14th by the race's mid-point. With the final burst, Harvick kept within fighting distance. In a Chase that rewards consistency over all else, that's important.
Loser: Debris Cautions
The long debate of the validity of NASCAR's debris cautions roared back Saturday night when a 130-lap green flag run over the race's second half was ended when NASCAR tossed the yellow flag.
The caution forced a round of pit stops and left a final green flag stint of 23 laps. It also zapped Jimmie Johnson's commanding lead while having all of the looks of a phantom caution flag designed to spice up the action in an otherwise vanilla race.
The television feed never showed the debris, and there wasn't a driver after the race who alleged to have seen the debris. Johnson, ever the good sport, laughed it off in a post-race press conference.
Late debris cautions are a very regular thing in NASCAR racing. It's also a very regular thing for the debris to not ever be found by TV cameras. For a sport entrenched in enough battles of legitimacy this season, the lack of transparency over a call with such race-altering effects remains a deep concern.