On top of the points
For Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, there’s two ways to look at the finish of Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. The optimistic view is they left the most dangerous track in NASCAR still neck and neck in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The pessimistic viewpoint is they each left a ton of points on the table.
In the end, they both sounded deeply disappointed, just like the tens of thousands of Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans in the grandstands who were certain their man was going to pass Jamie McMurray on the last lap, only to see a caution freeze the field and McMurray get the victory.
In the final rundown, Johnson was credited with a 13th-place finish and Kenseth a 20th, the respective worst finishes for both drivers in the six Chase races so far. Unofficially, Johnson now leads Kenseth by four points, the first time in the entire Chase that anyone other than Kenseth has been atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standing. Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are now 26 points back of the lead, with Jeff Gordon fifth, 32 points out.
What was especially galling for the two championship leaders was that Johnson led the most laps at Talladega and Kenseth the second-most, both men easily capable of winning.
But in one of the strangest restrictor-plate races in recent memory, it seemed as though most of the field raced three- and four-wide in the early stages of the race, but stayed single-file in the closing laps, everyone waiting to make a last-lap thrust forward. Except, thanks to the caution for Austin Dillon’s wreck on the backstretch half a lap from the finish, the caution flag flew, the field was frozen and there was no charge to victory.
It wasn’t like Johnson and Kenseth weren’t trying to get to the front.
With 10 laps to go, Johnson dropped down and attempted to move back to the lead, but when everyone else stayed in single-file order, he got hung out of the draft and had to scramble just to finish where he did.
“The outside lane got going and everybody jumped up in it,” said Johnson. “And you just don’t know if people are going to chase the bottom or the top. I figured the 1 (McMurray) and the 88 (Earnhardt) would take the top and run up there, and as that developed, I was on the bottom lane. I worked my way to the middle lane and was able to maintain for a while and then everybody went single-file at the top and I dropped like a rock. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling. It was not the position I wanted to be in late in the race.”
Johnson at least took comfort in knowing he brought his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet home ahead of Kenseth’s Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and took back the points lead for the first time since Atlanta. “Most importantly, finished in front of the 20 (Kenseth) and missed the wreck on the backstretch.”
Kenseth had no such consolation.
After leading 32 laps early in the race, by about the halfway point, Kenseth was complaining that his car was so loose that he thought we was going to wreck. And for two subsequent fuel runs, it was still handling poorly, with Kenseth falling as far back as 28th before crew chief Jason Ratcliff was able to make adjustments that made it competitive again.
“It was really bizarre,” Kenseth said. “Typically handling’s a non-issue at Talladega and we just got so loose I couldn’t even hang onto it. So I pretty much had to run at the back for two runs, which was disappointing. We finally got it fixed that last run, but we only had 20 laps to get back up there, and I really needed to be there like we were early and feeling like I was controlling the race more.”
Kenseth’s understandable frustration was evident. Like Johnson, he was peeved that the rest of the field ran in lockstep, instead of fanning out and trying to pass.
“It was just an incredibly disappointing day,” said Kenseth. “The end there, for the life of me I still can’t figure it out. I just need to watch it. From third (place) on back to 14th I think everybody was running half throttle … nobody wanted to go. Everybody just wanted to stay in their spot, so I should have been smarter there and pay attention to points, but I’m not really wired like that. I wanted to go up there and mix it up and try to win the thing.”
It was a strange afternoon, but it looks as if the same two men who came into Talladega with control of the championship will settle it between themselves over the next four weeks.