Topsy-turvy day at Charlotte tightens NASCAR playoffs
CONCORD, N.C. (AP) It should have been catastrophic nearly any way Joey Logano looked at his situation. His wrecked race car was in the garage during the opening race of the second round of the playoffs, his crew frantically trying to get him back on track.
At the moment, Logano's only saving grace was that Kevin Harvick had his own disabled vehicle and was stuck watching Sunday's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway roll on without them.
Then Austin Dillon wrecked, Chase Elliott, too. Denny Hamlin lost an engine and Martin Truex Jr. had a pit road miscue.
In all, five drivers finished 30th or worse Sunday, meaning the field remained bunched enough that everyone has an equal shot to recover.
There are two more races, at Kansas and Talladega, before this field of 12 is whittled to eight, and only eight points separate Hamlin, in the cutoff position, from Harvick, who is last in the standings. Logano, who got back on track to finish 36th, is two points ahead of Harvick and only six behind Hamlin.
''I feel better about it,'' Logano said of the standings. ''My team did a good job fighting to get back out there and I think we gained two points by doing that, and that could be the difference when it's all said and done.''
No one was immune Sunday, not Chevrolet, Ford or Toyota. The longshots Dillon and Elliott were wrecked, the favorites Harvick and Logano fallen by broken parts or tire issues.
The big winner? Why, Jimmie Johnson, who suddenly has a record-tying seventh championship in reach.
Hendrick Motorsports has been underwhelming this year, Johnson stuck in a 24-race losing streak. This Chase so far had been a Truex and Harvick show, Johnson just the driver of a car that seemed to have some speed but was no ultimate match with the others.
His win Sunday showed otherwise, and he stamped his name into the third round of the playoffs. Johnson had failed to advance to the round of eight each of the last two years, but he's got his slot now, and that's the first step in winning that elusive seventh title.
He sounded hungry after the race, his eighth win at Charlotte and 78th of his career.
''We can't sit back and celebrate too much,'' Johnson said. ''We've got to buckle down and get to work and keep advancing our race cars.''
DOUBLE-HEADER: The race was originally scheduled to run Saturday night, but Hurricane Matthew washed out almost the entire weekend. So all racing was pushed to Sunday, which turned into an 800-mile doubleheader with the Xfinity Series.
Logano went on to win the Xfinity Series race, which was the eliminating event in the inaugural Chase for that series. Ty Dillon was knocked out by Bubba Wallace by one point, and Brennan Poole, Ryan Sieg and Brandon Jones were also eliminated.
The second round of the Chase is a reprieve for Erik Jones, the pre-playoff favorite who fell into a deep hole in the opening race and is now back to even.
KENSETH TO KANSAS: Matt Kenseth left Charlotte on solid footing for the first time in the elimination system via a second-place finish to Johnson.
The stop in Charlotte had been his downfall the last two years. He tackled Brad Keselowski in the garage following a disappointing finish in 2014, and was second-to-last a year ago.
So to leave in decent shape, with the pressure not nearly as high this weekend at Kansas, Kenseth felt OK.
''Honestly, last two years in a row, pretty much Charlotte has kind of taken us out of the Chase - mostly my doing,'' he said.
HENDRICK RETURNS : This had been a miserable season for Hendrick Motorsports, by its own standards. Only two of its four drivers made the Chase this year and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is sidelined with a concussion.
Johnson has the only wins for the organization, but Elliott had been sniffing victory lane all season.
On Sunday, the two combined to lead 258 of the 334 laps, and Johnson and Elliott ran 1-2 for a huge chunk of the race.
Elliott was involved in an accident with 75 laps remaining and could not hide his disappointment.
''We had such a good car,'' he said. ''I'm devastated that we didn't get the result that my guys deserve.''
Despite Elliott's finish, it was a good organizational day for Hendrick: Kasey Kahne finished third and Alex Bowman showed early speed before a tire issue caused him to wreck.