And then there were three…Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin & Kevin Harvick
The field narrowed to just two contenders to block Jimmie Johnson’s “drive for five” now with just five races remaining. Pole sitter Jeff Gordon fell out of the competition starting at -85 points but mechanical problems forced long pit stops to correct. His 23rd place finish toward the end of the lead lap dropping him back an additional -71 points, now -156 behind Johnson. For last week’s winner Tony Stewart, the evening was even harsher on his championship hopes. He entered the evening a difficult -107 but fell back -70 further, now more than a full race’s distance behind #1, -177.
With Gordon and Stewart eliminated, a 3rd place finish was good enough to allow Johnson to further extend his lead. Things looked scary for the #48 ride when he spun out in the middle of the race, no harm done that a tire change couldn’t solve. Denny Hamlin finished 4th and only lost -5 to Johnson, now -41. Kevin Harvick’s top 10 results saw him lose -23 points putting him -77 behind numero uno.
Only a total failure by the #48 team could reignite anyone below Kevin Harvick’s chances of competing for the Cup Championship. Realistically, besides Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, the battle to stop Jimmie Johnson’s “drive for five” is over.
Beyond the chase, the story belongs to Jamie McMurray who won the race for his 3rd victory. He’s won the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400. He was the last driver to be eliminated from “The Chase” standing in 13th place after Richmond, and only two chasers, Johnson and Hamlin exceed his wins total. He’s earned four poles this year. No other driver has more than two. Considering four chasers don’t have a single win and Clint Bowyer has his one tarnished victory, McMurray surely seems more worthy of a seat at the end of the year gala in Vegas over some of the top ten elites. Unfortunately, his season has been plagued with many instances of being in the wrong place at the wrong time being caught up in some races “big” wrecks. Eliminate a couple of those and he’d be in the top 12.
What’s with Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Does he not look like a fellow just going through the motions? How long can he live off his popularity and his father’s shadow before he becomes insignificant? Not making the chase, a reasonable expectation for a driver with his past accomplishments and Hendricks equipment, is one thing but finishing deep in the running order far from the front of the lead lap is disappointing. When Kasey Kahne moves to Hendrick for 2012, how much room will be left for Junior if he is not in the hunt and knocking off a few wins here and there? Aside from his brilliant Nationwide victory at Daytona in July honoring his dad’s induction into the Hall of Fame, seldom have we seen him fired up for an entire race. Some races, he seems to lose interest toward the end. We still wish him well, but it’s getting harder and harder to take him seriously as a true racer. He finished 12th within “The Chase” field in 2008, his first year with Hendricks, but truly hasn’t been a stud on the track since 2006 when he finished 5th in the final standings.
The evening in Charlotte must have been at least a minor consolation for Bobby Labonte who finished 22nd, one lap down. For the first time in weeks, he has been able to complete a race not stuck with a disgraceful park and ride operation. He rode the #10 Gander Mountain Chevy on a team organized by his brother, Terry, with RCR power. Four cars quit the race thanks to some of the most flagrant competition abusers such as the so called Prism team and Nemechek operation failing to qualify.
The autumn race in Charlotte often helps solidify who is truly contending for the championship, 2010’s race proved no exception.