KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) The first sign that Kansas Speedway was going to be a heartbreaker for Hendrick Motorsports should have come during qualifying when Jimmie Johnson inexplicably spun and earned one of his worst starting spots since 2005.
Even that couldn’t prepare the organization for the trouble it encountered during Sunday’s race.
Johnson was involved in an early accident and finished 40th, which dropped the six-time and defending NASCAR champion to last in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship standings. It was Johnson’s worst Chase finish since the 2005 season finale.
It only got worse from there for the Hendrick cars. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a tire problem while leading and hit the wall, causing him to finish 39th. Then Kasey Kahne also hit the wall – he too believed it was caused by a tire problem – and finished 22nd.
Even Jeff Gordon, who finished a team-best 14th, had a problem. A tire got away from his pit crew during a stop, earning a penalty for the four-time series champion.
”A lot of people had trouble, so today was a real survival day,” Gordon said.
But Kahne, Earnhardt and Johnson are now at the bottom of the 12-driver field, and four will be eliminated in two weeks after Talladega. It means they’ve got to be above average Saturday night at Charlotte to avoid having their championship hopes depend on Talladega.
A win earns a driver an automatic berth into the next round, and on Sunday it went to Joey Logano, who picked up his fifth victory of the season.
Johnson wants to also earn that automatic berth.
”It just means we’ve got to be on our game at Charlotte and Talladega,” Johnson said. ”Certainly need W’s, I would assume, going forward.”
Here are some other major developments from the fourth race in the 10-race Chase:
LOGANO SURGES: With his win on Sunday at Kansas, Logano once again proved he’s going to be tough to beat in this race for the Sprint Cup.
He’s won in both rounds of the Chase to stay alive in the elimination format, and his career-best five wins this season is tied with teammate Brad Keselowski for most in the series.
”Getting us to the next round, that’s awesome,” Logano said. ”I’m having a blast this year, and we’ve got a real shot to win this championship. I feel like we’re one of the teams to beat.”
MIXED BAG: Although Keselowski visited his teammate in Victory Lane, the Team Penske group had mixed emotions at the end of the race.
He was also felled by a tire problem and finished 36th, lamenting after that the Goodyear issues turned the race into ”a game of Russian Roulette and it was our turn at the gun.”
Team owner Roger Penske said the focus must now turn to Charlotte and not what happened to Keselowski at Kansas.
”These races, when they’re over, they’re over,” Penske said. ”Obviously we’ll do whatever we can to help him. The whole team will. But the thing we can’t do is make a big right or left turn here. We’ve got to take on the same track we’re on.”
HARVICK NOT HAPPY: Kevin Harvick once again had one of the fastest cars on the track and nothing to show for it at the end of the race.
He led 61 laps and was third when he headed to pit road with what he believed was a flat tire. His Stewart-Haas Racing crew found nothing wrong with the tires, but the damage was done: Harvick had dropped to 23rd, was out of contention for the victory and had to charge his way back to a 12th-place finish. He apologized to his crew over his radio.
”I thought I had a flat tire and pitted because you see all the trouble that is going on,” he said after the race, explaining his car simply ”didn’t turn.”
LARSON, AGAIN: Kyle Larson continued to creep closer and closer to his first career Sprint Cup Series victory with his second-place finish.
Larson, a rookie who did not qualify for the Chase, has finished second in two of the last three races and was in a late battle for the win at Chicago before finishing third. He’s not finished lower than sixth since the Chase began.
”I definitely feel like I’ve been running a lot better than what I thought I would to start the season, but I thought I would make the Chase, too,” Larson said. ”I think midpoint through the season, I noticed I was running better than what our goals were and raised those goals into top 10s, and now the way we’ve been running, we want to be top-5 every week.”
BIG DAY FOR BUSCH: Kyle Busch has seen his championship hopes come to a crashing halt many times at Kansas, a track that he simply couldn’t get a grasp of in the Cup Series.
He finally ended his unlucky streak Sunday, a day after he won the Nationwide Series race, with a career-best third-place finish. It gave Busch a top-five finish at every active track on the Cup schedule, and moved him to second in the Chase standings.
”I won today, I just didn’t get champagne and a trophy,” he said. ”To get through Kansas feels nice.”