Doug Turnbull: Johnson 3rd 600 win, first of 2014
Flag to Flag: Jimmie Johnson is Charlotte Motor Speedway royalty without his dominating win in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. He swept both races at the track in 2004 and 2005 and sat on the pole in this race. But the win, his 3rd in the annual Memorial Day weekend race, meant just a little more than those in past years. Johnson’s No. 48 Lowe’s team had been winless in 2014, galvanizing rumors about there being something a little off with the team. This just shows the dominance that people are used to in this camp, but really there wasn’t all that much wrong. Johnson just often had not been the fastest car week in and week out, but that would change in race 12 of the ’14 NASCAR Sprint Cup season. When the green flag dropped just before 6:30 p.m., Brad Keselowski (10th) drove to 1st from the outside of row one, but Johnson took the point point on lap 2 and held it until green flag pit stops, ironically enough, on lap 48. Johnson regained the lead until Kevin Harvick (2nd) came to life and took the top spot. Johnson and Harvick swept the lead again and again through the night, but pit strategy and pit mistakes would cost them both at some point.
Johnson was pitting on lap 275 when the caution came out for Kurt Busch’s (40th) blown motor. As the pits remained open, Johnson got onto pit road, made a four-tire stop, and exited ahead of leader Matt Kenseth, whom the pace car had just collected. This put Johnson in 18th, but then back into the lead as the rest of the lead lap cars pitted. Later in the race, around lap 330, Brad Keselowski led Aric Almirola (11th), Paul Menard (8th), and Carl Edwards (4th), as they had gotten on a pit sequence where they would only have to pit one more time and the leaders would have to pit twice. If the race had stayed green, they’d have won it. But misfortune kept them all from capitalizing. Keselowski pitted an additional time under green for a loose wheel and Almirola stalled on pit road, as he tried to stretch his fuel to make it on one more stop. Edwards was left in the cat bird seat with 25 laps to go as Johnson, Kenseth, and Harvick made their final pit stops. If the race had stayed green, he’d have won, but a caution on lap 380 for Alex Bowman hitting the wall swept away that strategy. Edwards and Menard pitted, ceding the lead to Kenseth and Johnson.
Harvick pitted from the back of the top 10 – he had gotten off sequence from the 20 and 48 because of a loose wheel on a previous pit stop and had to fight from the back of the top 20. Harvick got four fresh tires and drove from 10th place at the drop of the final green flag on lap 384 of 400 all the way to 2nd at race’s end. On that restart, Kenseth started pulling away as Johnson had his hands full with teammate Jeff Gordon (7th) and Martin Truex Jr. (25th). But once Johnson cleared them he drove his heart out and caught Kenseth for the lead with nine laps to go. Harvick eventually would pass Kenseth, who apologized profusely to his team on the radio for just not getting the win for them. Harvick again finished 2nd – as he had at Kansas and in the All-Star race – and again attributed the loss to the ineptitude of his pit crew. Harvick’s lost time entering pit road cost him at Kansas and the crew’s slow stop in the All-Star race cost them wins those weeks, too. The top 10 were Johnson, Kenseth, Harvick, Edwards, Jamie McMurray (was a lap down at one point, but drove a great race and led some laps and got a strong showing after his All-Star win), Brian Vickers (strong the whole night, running consistently in the top 10), Gordon (overcame back spasms in Saturday’s first practice session and a poor 27th-place starting spot), Menard, Kyle Busch (started in rear with backup car and fell a lap down at one point), and Keselowski (in the top 10, despite that extra stop). The race had long green flag runs (including the first 108 laps), which meant many cars fell laps down early. There were two crashes, including Marcos Ambrose’s (29th) slide through the grass, which ended up collecting Danica Patrick (39th), Brian Scott (32nd), Landon Cassill (36th), and Josh Wise (41st). David Gilliland also had a problem with the right front of his car and collided hard with the wall, making for the 3rd-straight race that Front Row Motorsports has lost one car (Gilliland being a victim in all three). Patricl started 3rd, ran as high as 2nd, but started fading toward the end of the first run and eventually outside the top 20. Then she had some crash damage and finally a blown motor, ending a promising night after her surprisingly good run at Kansas (7th).
Kurt Busch’s head-turning 6th-place in the Indy 500 ended in disappointment. Again, the No. 41 just wasn’t all that fast, but Busch had nursed it into the top 20 and flirted on and off of the lead lap. A broken shock that NASCAR would not let the team change on pit road soured the affair, but a downed cylinder and eventual blow motor sunk it. He placed 40th, meaning Tony Stewart (13th in this race) is the only driver to complete all 1100 miles of the Indy-Charlotte double. This Coke 600 wasn’t a memorable classic, but the pit strategy and the hard racing amongst the leaders toward the end made for an entertaining start to the NASCAR summer and the Kurt Busch storyline was intriguing.
RaceTweet: Johnson wins Coke 600 ahead of unhappy Harvick and apologetic Kenseth. The little guys never had a chance. Six-time is in the Chase now.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Jimmie Johnson – Johnson led the most laps (164) and made the bold, race-winning to take the lead from Matt Kenseth at the end. He had the fastest car and the No. 48 team didn’t shoot themselves in the foot (like the No. 4 team did) – thus, the win.
North Korean Missile Dud of the Race: Kasey Kahne – The two-time 600 winner was fast in the All-Star race before hitting the wall and falling out of contention and he may have had something for his teammate Johnson. But during an early pit sequence, Kahne started to make the turn into his pit and another car was in the way – so he missed it. Since the race was green, Kahne lost a ton of positions as he took another lap around the track and then pitted again. He made up about 10 spots through the next 400 miles, but never got himself in position to get in the lead lap. He finished the first car a lap down in 14th, another subpar run indicative of the No. 5 team’s hard luck season.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Aric Almirola – He’s won this before, even though his team is more of a mid-level team than an underfunded one. But Almirola and new crew chief Trent Owens have gotten the No. 43 purring better and Sunday was evidence. Almirola had been a top 20-top 15 car and then became part of the lead pack on their fuel-stretching strategy. On a night were teammate Marcos Ambrose spun and struggled all night in 29th, Almirola flew the Richard Petty Motorsports colors proud. He has to be a dark horse candidate to win a race this year.
Wheel of Misfortune: Martin Truex Jr. – Truex Jr. was in the top 10 almost the whole night, by far the best run of the season for he and the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team. They snuck into the top 5 for the last run, but a broken axle sent them to the pits and a 25th-place finish two laps down.
You Can Comeback, But You Can’t Stay Here: Kevin Harvick – Harvick was fast all race, before the loose wheel lost him track position. Crew chief Rodney Childers’ call to take four tires before the last restart turned the No. 4 Chevy into a rocket. A few more laps, and Harvick would have chased down Johnson and taken the win.
Ghost Driver: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – The No. 17 Mike Kelley-led team has struggled mightily the past few weeks. They were non-factors in the Sprint Showdown, distant at Kansas, and once again a force not to be reckoned with in the Coke 600. Stenhouse Jr. has shown brightly some weeks and been forgotten some others – this race was the latter. Something is amiss at Roush-Fenway Racing and that lack of something just may chase away its star drivers Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Clint Bowyer – The No. 15 team was top 3 and likely a contender for the win before having to make an unscheduled green flag pit stop to ease a vibration. Bowyer is not known to be a tower of calm on his radio in midst of adversity and when crew chief Brian Pattie called him to pit road, they changed only two tires to remedy the problem – the vibration remained. Already down a lap, they had to pit again and lost more track time. They rebounded to finish 17th, a lap down, but should have gotten a top 5. Bowyer gets a “huh?” for not knowing enough to diagnose the vibration and Pattie gets one too for changing only two tires in that moment of uncertainty. That was not a championship-winning move.
Georgia on My Mind: This was a weekend to celebrate the Georgia gang. There were five Peach State natives in the Nationwide Series and our two regulars in Sprint Cup. But the day was rough for the gang Saturday, as Chase Elliott was the only competitor in a strong car. He ran in the top 10, but had a right-front problem, wrecked, went to the garage and finished 37th. He goes from having the points lead to 3rd in points, 28 behind leader Regan Smith and 23 behind Elliott Sadler. John Wes Townley drove the Athenian Motorsports No. 25 to three laps down in 22nd and Ryan Sieg spun in the race, placing four laps down in 27th. Kyle Fowler made his season debut, driving the Deware No. 86 to 32nd and nine laps down. And finally, Chris Cockrum made his NNS debut in the No. 87 Advanced Communications Group/CaptainHerb.net ride for Rick Ware Racing. He crashed five laps into his first practice Thursday and had to find a backup car (which belonged to JD Motorsports). Having run zero laps in the car, he qualified 39th and had no idea what was under the car when the race started. He got lapped early and often in the long green flag runs of the race and ended up 35th, 14 laps down at the end. The team had adjusted the car and he was actually passing other lap cars late in the race, but a problem with the fuel pickup near the end brought them to the pits two laps from the finish. In the Cup race, David Ragan started 35th and finished 31st. Both he and Reed Sorenson, who started 41st, got lapped early and never had a fighting chance. Sorenson retired early on with engine problems and finished 42nd, while Ragan finished five laps down. Every Georgia driver but Elliott was a victim of long green flag runs, subpar equipment, and less experience that the leaders.