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Jimmie Johnson takes a heck of hit at Charlotte, Matt Kenseth wins Saturday's 500, and Carl Edwards hold on to the Sprint Cup points lead

  Matt Kenseth, NASCAR's 'Stealth Bomber,' wins again, and puts himself right smack in the heart of the Sprint Cup championship chase. Wonder if NASCAR would change the rules if he wins this title? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    By Mike Mulhern


   The first four weeks of NASCAR's championship playoffs Matt Kenseth had lived up to his reputation for flying under-the-radar. But Saturday night the sport's 2003 champion made a strong statement that he's in this chase to win – charging away from title rivals Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards down the stretch to win the Bank of America 500.
   And five-time champion Jimmie Johnson took a terrifying hit in the final minutes: http://bit.ly/q1FsNF

   Edwards takes the Sprint Cup points lead to next weekend's Talladega 500, but he's just five points ahead of Kevin Harvick and seven ahead of Kenseth.
   "We're at the top of our game at the 1-1/2-mile tracks, and at one point we had seven Ford in the top 10," winning team owner Jack Roush said proudly.
   "We're in championship form. Hard work is vindicating…and we're getting what we deserve."
   However Roush and Kenseth are still both looking for sponsor for this team for the 2012 season, a point Kenseth himself made clear. "We do need a sponsor…but we will run this team with or without a sponsor.
   "This is my 24th year in the series, and it's a really strange time, I've never seen anything like it. We have times where sponsors were competing….and now it seems like sponsors want to do just enough to advertise their product."



Yep, that sure is a funny looking car Matt Kenseth drives across the finish line. But then he needs a sponsor for 2012. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   The story of the night, though, was Jimmie Johnson, who hit the wall hard in a vicious crash in the final moments of the three-hour race while dueling with Ryan Newman for seventh.
    Johnson emerged from the infield hospital and called it "a pretty big impact."
    Indeed – it was a nose-first smash into the outside wall that looked eerily similar to the crash at Daytona that killed Dale Earnhardt in 2001.
    But fortunately NASCAR has brought a significant number of safety devices to the sport in the years since, particularly the soft-walls and the HANS device.  And Johnson and others here were quick to praise NASCAR's safety initiatives.
    Nevertheless Johnson's 34th place finish cost him dearly in the title chase. After his win last week at Kansas, Johnson came here just four points off the lead; but he goes to Talladega 35 points down, with five races to go.
    That crash might have been the turning point in Johnson's bid for a sixth straight championship.
    "This is not going to help us win this championship," Johnson said.
    "But everything in the car did its job. That was a pretty big impact."



Jimmie Johnson took a frightening lick in Saturday's Charlotte 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   "What happened to Jimmie Johnson is a sobering incident," Jack Roush, the winning car owner, said.
   And Roush then said that Johnson probably won't be able to race his way back into title contention unless several of the current front runners have problems.

   After the win, Kenseth was, again, the 'new' Matt Kenseth, quick to quip, and witty.
   But it was his performance on the track down the stretch that was gritty. Yes, Roush horsepower was awesome, but then the man Kenseth had to pass for the win was Kyle Busch – who had come from dead last at the start (after a pre-race engine change), and who is always tough to deal with – just ask Edwards.
   "All night I felt like we had a car that would probably last 150 laps or so, and if we could get it front, it would be hard to beat," Kenseth said of the 334-lapper at Charlotte Motor Speedway. 
    "But it was really hard to pass, especially after you had about 20 laps on your tires. You needed to get it done right away.
    "And we got ourselves behind just a little bit that one time, got back to fifth or sixth…and honestly it took that last 150 laps or whatever to get back to the lead.
    "I had fun racing with Kyle (the leader late). We had a pretty decent restart, the second to last one, and got by Denny (Hamlin) and Carl, and ran Kyle down….and it was tough to get by him. It was challenging."

   The other story of the evening was the late-race duel between Edwards and Busch for second. Busch got the spot, but Edwards took exception to his driving.
    And Edwards afterwards went to Busch's car on pit road and told him he didn't like the way Busch raced him at that one point.
    Racing too hard?
    "We should definitely be racing each other hard…It's just that there's a difference between racing hard and then cutting across the guy's nose," Edwards said.
   "What I asked Kyle is I just wonder why, coming off turn two, when I got under him, that he drove down, instead of going up to the wall like we would normally do. 
    "And I just let him know that next time that happens, I'll just stay where I'm at and he can drive across my hood and wreck himself.
    "It just surprised me.
    "He told me he didn't mean to do it, and I got to believe that, but I don't know what else there is to say about it. It's racing…and we didn't wreck…and we are going to race hard like that."

   Busch and Edwards have had a series of run-ins over the past year or so, and Busch seems to come out ahead….but Edwards hasn't taken the run-ins lightly, though Edwards has been diplomatic – relatively – in his comments.

   Busch's explanation:  "Certainly it's tight racing, and Carl got a good run through the turn and got up to my left-rear quarterpanel…and typically that gets you a little loose.
    "And my car got loose. It started moving out a little bit. And I just held the wheel straight, and it was essentially steering almost downhill.
     "It did not get sideways like really loose, so loose that I about wrecked.  It just started steering and kind of free wheeling, so I just let it go. 
     "I ran him (Edwards) a little tight. I just hugged on his door down the backstretch, to sidedraft him, to keep him along side me, to give me another chance at redeeming myself through three and four and getting back by him, and it worked out.
     "There was no malicious intent involved, to cause anything, or to hurt his chances at finishing second. It was just a product of what we had at the end, going for everything we could."
   Again it was a rough night for many of the title contenders, as the playoffs have been.
   Brad Keselowski was both a disappointment and disappointed, though he said taking "a 25th-place car and finishing 16th" was quite an achievement. As hot as Keselowski has been in the chase, he was oddly never in the hunt here, running in the 20s most of the night.
   Dale Earnhardt Jr., already all but out of title contention, didn't do much in this 500, and then a loose wheel doomed him to 19th.
   Teammate Jeff Gordon, also all but out it, was likewise never a factor, finishing a weak 21st.
    Keselowski's teammate Kurt Busch never did much during the evening, though finished 13th. The report that crew chief Steve Addington may leave at the end of the season has put a cloud of turmoil over that team.
   Tony Stewart had the car to beat the first half of the race, taking decisive leads in the race, which was slowly only for debris cautions till the final miles. But an untimely caution flag, just after he had pitted routinely midway, along with several others, put Stewart in a hole, and he never really recovered. Still Stewart managed to pull out an eighth.
   Harvick, though he'd won the 600 here in May, has frequently said this track isn't one of his favorites, and it showed again. He never made a serious run at the front, but his sixth at the finish keeps him hot in the title chase. He said he was leaving this place with relief: "One of our goals was to get through these first five chase races and not get in too deep a hole. And if you'd told me I'd be leaving Charlotte just five points out of the lead, wow!"


   Kyle Busch (on the outside) is the leader for this restart late in Saturday's 500, and Carl Edwards (on the inside) took exception to Busch's driving moments later in the corner (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



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