Five things we learned at Charlotte
Don't rule out Jimmie Johnson in the Chase despite his poor finish on Saturday
A model of consistency, Matt Kenseth is sneaking up on drivers after his victory
Jeff Gordon's already-frustrating season got worse in Charlotte, finishing 21st
Anyone else and the eulogy would be begun in haste, or simply picked up again after a few weeks of inactivity.
But this is Jimmie Johnson after all, a driver that has navigated seemingly every possible crag and switchback in winning five consecutive Sprint Cup championships, who just a few weeks ago was assumed done after a comparatively poor start to the Chase for the Championship left him in tenth place after two races. This was Johnson, who if not motivated by the premature dismissal, playfully reveled in debunking it after finishing second at Dover and winning at Kansas to improve to a threatening fourth in points. So moments after Johnson's No. 48 rammed brutally hard into a wall at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday, the feeling that a historic era had just ended was not as automatic as would be expected.
Certainly, in finishing 34th and falling from third to eighth in points, from four to 35 behind leader Carl Edwards, Johnson is in an unenviable position with just five races remaining. But anyone else and it might be considered an impossible obstacle. Whether the Johnson era ended against the wall on Saturday night likely won't be fully known for another five weeks. And that speaks volumes about what Johnson has accomplished the last five seasons.
"We just have to keep racing," he said. "That's all there is to it. There are five races left, and a lot can happen in five races."
And now, five things we learned at Charlotte:
1. Matt Kenseth is blowing his cover: The 39-year-old, 2003 series champion is at his best when he is working slightly off the grid, in the last shade of the spotlight. Maybe it's the Midwestern mentality. Maybe it's the workaday sensibility. But halfway through the Chase for the Championship, Kenseth thrust himself emphatically into title contention with a victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His performance to this point in the Chase -- sixth, fifth, fourth and now first in his last four -- makes his victory no surprise , but for a driver who succeeds with crunching consistency to begin adding victories to his arsenal makes him exceptionally dangerous. "He's the only one of the three of us that's got a championship," said points leader and Roush Fenway teammate Carl Edwards in comparing him, Kenseth and Kyle Busch. "He's doing really well, and tonight, that car was really fast and he drove it really well. I spent a lot of time behind him. He was wheeling it. So I don't think you can count him out at all." Added Busch: "You can never count him out. It seems like those Wisconsin guys are awfully quiet most of the time. You know, maybe that's just a part of it. They will squeak it out there at the end, and leave you in the dust."
2. Jimmie Johnson has lost his home-field advantage: Much of Johnson's formula for winning five consecutive Sprint Cup championships has involved his aptitude on the 1.5-mile race tracks that currently comprise half of the 10-race Chase schedule. And of Johnson's 55 wins at these intermediate venues, six have come at Charlotte Motor Speedway. But just as the track outside Charlotte has lost its sponsorship from Lowe's -- which endows Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet -- Johnson has lost his knack at the venue. In finishing 34th on Saturday night, Johnson has three DNFs since 2008 and four finishes of 28th or worse in his eight most recent events there. By contrast, Johnson won five of his first nine events at CMS from 2001-2005. He finished 34th on Saturday after crashing with 17 laps left as he ran seventh, his car skidding out of control through a corner as he battled Ryan Newman for position.
3. Kyle Busch is ready to race: The regular-season points leader has cruised through the first four races of the playoffs but was threatening while being frustrated for much of the night on Saturday. Saddled with starting 43rd because of an engine change after team personnel reportedly damaged the original power plant, Busch used tire strategy to put himself in contention and wrangled his way to the front, where he led a race-high 111 laps. Edwards was unhappy with Busch's racing style in the final laps, stopping by his No. 18 Toyota for a prolonged and lengthy debriefing on pit road, but that simply underscores that the true essence of the younger Busch brother is again asserting itself. After finishing second on Saturday, Busch is fourth in points, 18 behind Edwards and in the best position at this point in any of his previous Chase efforts. "We've got to keep finishing like this," he said. "It's all it takes. It isn't that hard." No excuses then.
4. Jeff Gordon's Chase got worse: The four-time series champion's bid for a fifth title a decade after his last has been a disaster. There have been fuel mileage issues, foul fortune, and on Saturday night, an accident that sunk him to a 21st-place finish and a one-spot drop to 11th place. Halfway through the Chase, Gordon is 66 points behind Edwards. The rapid nature of his undoing on Saturday makes his predicament even crueler. Gordon was working his way through the field on a restart with 43 laps left when David Ragan's No. 6 Ford wiggled in a turn and brushed Gordon, sending his No. 24 Chevrolet sliding down the track.
5. No one is too proud to beg: Matt Kenseth is a former series champion, an accomplished, veteran race car driver that does nothing to embarrass a sponsor, is presentable and witty if given enough space, but is without a sponsor for next year even as he marches toward a possible second title. And his plea toward Crown Royal, which at least partially sponsored his No. 17 Ford for the past two seasons but will not return in 2012, was indicative of how desperate times are becoming for even successful race teams. Kenseth suggested to any Diageo brands executive that happened to be listening in a post-race interview that "it's not too late to come back. We still don't have any sponsor for next year."
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