Charlotte a Pivotal Test for Title Contenders

Jimmie Johnson

Although he's won the past two All-Star races, Jimmie Johnson has not fared as well in points races at Charlotte with just two top-10 finishes in his last seven starts there. (Photo: Getty Images)

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Three drivers have combined to win the eight points races on 1.5-mile tracks this season and Jimmie Johnson is not one of them.

Heading into Saturday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Johnson trails series leader Matt Kenseth by three points. This would be seem to be the perfect chance for Johnson to take the points lead as the Chase hits the halfway mark.

Maybe not.

Charlotte’s 1.5-mile track has befuddled Johnson. Although he won the All-Star race in May for a second consecutive year, he has only two top-10 finishes in his last seven points races at Charlotte. 

With half of the six remaining Chase races on 1.5-mile tracks - including the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway - what happens at these tracks could determine the champion.

Johnson admits that since the track surface changed, he’s not been as dominant at Charlotte. 

“We’re one of three or one of five that can really make something happen here at this track where before we seemed to have a pretty good advantage,’’ Johnson said after his All-Star win.

The problem for Johnson is that Kenseth has been better at such tracks. Kenseth has scored four of his career-high seven wins this season at 1.5-mile tracks. Kenseth’s average finish of 6.8 at such tracks is better than any of the drivers in the top five in points. Johnson’s average finish of 10.6 at such tracks is weighed by a 28th at Atlanta when he ran into the back of Jeff Burton’s car as Burton slowed to enter the pits.

Kenseth’s worst finish on a 1.5-mile track was 15th at Charlotte in May. He led 112 laps but lost his chance at winning when the caution came out after he pitted, taking away his track position.

It’s not just Kenseth that Johnson will have to contend with this weekend. Kansas winner Kevin Harvick also won the Coca-Cola 600. He has six top-10 finishes at 1.5-mile tracks. Of the 191 laps he’s led this season, 88 percent have come on 1.5-mile tracks.

Harvick’s win Sunday vaulted him to third in the season standings, 25 points behind Kenseth. Based on his success at the 1.5-mile tracks, Harvick could move closer if Kenseth and Johnson have trouble.

“Having the speed that it had I think shows the gains that we've been able to make since (the 600),’’ Harvick said after Sunday’s victory. “The confidence in the team and the car and the mile‑and‑a‑half stuff is good.

“The bottom line is you can have fast cars, but it's going to come down just like it did at the 600. You're going to have to have the right strategy to go along with everything as the day unfolds.’’

Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon hope things go differently for them to have a chance to climb back into the title hunt.

Busch’s car was damaged by the fallen camera cable during the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. Gordon was involved in an accident in that race.

After starting the Chase with top-five finishes in each of the first three races, Busch was beaten by his nemesis, Kansas Speedway, on Sunday. He finished 34th after a crash, his second incident of the race.

Busch is the only driver other than Kenseth and Harvick to win on a 1.5-mile track this season, but Charlotte has not been as kind to him. While he’s regularly won Nationwide and Camping World Truck races there, he’s never won a Cup race at Charlotte. It doesn’t mean he’s been awful, though. He five top-five finishes in the last seven races at that track, but he’ll likely need wins to get back into the title hunt. He enters this weekend fifth in the standings.

Gordon is fourth and could have been much closer had he not slid through his pit stall at New Hampshire while leading. That cost him more than 20 positions and he didn’t get them all back. Gordon is running his best this season at this time of the year. After early struggles on the 1.5-mile tracks, Gordon has finished in the top 10 in the last four races at such tracks. He placed third last weekend at Kansas.

“Earlier this year I was probably as frustrated as I've ever been in a race car,’’ Gordon said after the Kansas race. “We just were missing something, and then the times when we hit on it, like Texas, for instance, and we had a failure with the left front hub. We've had a tough year. Last year was tough enough, and then this year I thought that we'd gotten all that out of our system and we didn't seem to have.

“But I'll tell you what, we never stopped working and trying to get the cars to suit my liking. When the cars are solid and giving me good feedback and I can get aggressive with it, then my confidence goes up. And right now my team has been bringing great race cars to the racetrack.’’               

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