Sprint Cup points lead changes hands after late-race shuffle
Of course it would happen at Talladega Superspeedway, the 2.66-mile monstrosity where -- as evidenced in Saturday's Camping World Truck Series event -- a dozen vehicles can get knocked out in one fell swoop. But the shuffle at the top of the standings didn't occur due to an accident; although Austin Dillon's car popped into the air on a last-lap crash, there was no Big One on Sunday. Rather, the root cause was something else that didn't happen.
That would be the formation of a bottom line on the final lap to challenge eventual winner Jamie McMurray and runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr., streaking at the front of a long lane of cars roaring up against the wall. Working with his spotter over the radio, Kenseth tried to get one together -- but it never happened, and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver found himself stuck in 20th place at the finish line.
"I'm still actually just dumbfounded why everybody just rode," Kenseth said. "Once you're five cars back, you're a half-mile. I can't believe nobody even tried. I should have been smarter. I should have thought about points more, and looked at (Johnson) and just rode in that top line. I thought we'd get enough cars in there to try to make a run there toward the front to try to mix it up for the win. I thought that's what we're here to do, so that's what I was trying to do. It just didn't work out."
Johnson didn't fare much better -- although he led a race-high 47 laps, the middle lane in which he was riding toward the end became the low lane, and then disappeared entirely as everyone moved toward the top. But Johnson's 13th-place result was still good enough to flip the standings and put him four points ahead of Kenseth, reversing the deficit he carried into north Alabama.
"Excited. Excited to go racing," the five-time series champion said. "(And) to come out of here with a straight race car and a decent finish -- or a finish ahead of the car we were most worried about, which was (Kenseth). It's 13th, which isn't the best. But mission accomplished. We had a good day, and I really like the final four race tracks on the schedule, and I'm looking forward to it."
While Johnson spent most of the race at or near the front, Kenseth dealt with a car that at its best was able to lead 32 laps, and at its worst was so loose that he had to bide his time near the back. The vehicle seemed to change coming out of a pit stop following a caution caused by a crash involving Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya. "Did you change anything?" Kenseth asked crew chief Jason Ratcliff over the radio. "I'm really loose. Like wrecking loose."
Ratcliff answered in the negative. It took two pit stops and two rounds of changes before the vehicle finally returned to something resembling its previous form. The road there, though, was a stressful one. "I can't race like this without wrecking," Kenseth said as he fell back to 23rd.
"Once we got off, we were so loose I had to wait two full runs to get up there," Kenseth said afterward. "There were a couple of times I made the move to get up to third or fourth, but with a car outside of me and a car behind me, I was just about crashing every corner, so really we had to come back and get the car right. I don’t know what happened to it."
In the end, the car was good enough that Kenseth was able to drive back toward the front -- before getting stuck three-wide at the bottom.
"We're going to be right in the middle of this fricking wreck. We need to get the heck out of here," he said over the radio. Again he faded back, all the while keeping a constant dialogue with spotter Chris Osborne trying to pull together a low line to rival the one steaming along at the top.
Kenseth asked Osborne to coordinate with the spotters of Joey Logano, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle to create an inside line. "I need more than a couple of cars," Kenseth radioed. "I need four or five." But they never materialized, and Kenseth remained stuck -- unable to advance his position on his own, and unable to find the help he needed to make a run at it on the bottom.
"I thought everybody would mix it up at the end and try to make a race out of it," he said. "But everybody just stayed up at the top and pedaled it. That was my bad, I guess. I should have been happy with 10th, but I just have a hard time doing that."
He wasn't the only one dumbstruck -- the winner was as well. "I was really surprised they weren't able to put something together and make more of a run," McMurray said. "I was shocked by that."
Paul Menard, who finished fourth, said no one wanted to be the first driver to go to the bottom, so everyone was left waiting on someone else to make the first move. "I wasn't going to be the first guy to do that, because I've done that before and been shuffled out pretty quick," he said. "I was going to wait for somebody else to make the first move, and try to piggy-back on."
In the end, it never happened. "They must be still thinking about it," Kenseth said, "because nobody made one."
The finishes by Johnson and Kenseth cracked the door slightly for a few other Chase drivers -- Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are now 26 points off the lead, and Jeff Gordon is 34 points back in fifth. But Sunday, it was clear the two top contenders were eyeing one another. Early on, crew chief Chad Knaus told Johnson to pit when Kenseth did, keeping the two lead cars on cycle with one another. And Kenseth once asked Osborne to be wary of new lines coming up behind him, after being hung out because Johnson led a rush up the middle.
"At the end, it was just focused on just being ahead of him and getting any points I could," Johnson said of Kenseth. "But over the course of the race, he's so good at drafting that I wanted to work with him. I felt it was the safest environment. … I was very comfortable telling myself that if I finished behind him in second or around him, I wouldn't lose many points to him in the overall scheme of things. As the race goes on, that mindset goes away and you just want to be greedy and get all you can. I raced with him a lot today, throughout it, but at the end I just wanted to get anything I could."
Sunday marked the first time Johnson had stood atop the points since Labor Day in Atlanta, before the standings were reset by race victories for the Chase. It also marked the fourth time in Chase history that the points lead changed hands after the checkered flag fell at Talladega. Now it's on to the final four events -- at Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead, places where the Hendrick Motorsports driver has won a combined 14 times. Eight of those victories are at Martinsville, where Kenseth has never won.
"I feel that the races forward now are … where the competitors go earn it," Johnson said. "You don’t have this luck issue that can take place at plate tracks. So I am happy to have the points lead, and we went through a lot of work to get there. We were just getting one point at a time, and we got a few more than normal today and were able to get the lead. We just go racing from here, and that is the thing I am most excited for. Great race tracks, great race cars and it’s just going to be a dogfight to the end.”
And Kenseth certainly has plenty of fight left. Sunday, though, losing the lead in the standings seemed to pale in comparison to not having a chance to win the race.
"I haven't even looked at them," he said of the points. "You can't run 20th and win it."