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NASCAR continues to get spoiled by another rain-free weekend, as we stay at Charlotte Motor Speedway for NASCAR's longest race, the Coca-Cola 600.
Not only will it be mostly dry, but it will once again be hot. High pressure is going to dominate the eastern third of the United States this weekend. This will provide lots of sunshine, highs reaching the upper 80s to near 90, and it will be humid.
The only areas of concern I have are the chance of isolated showers and storms on Thursday afternoon for practice and Sprint Cup Series qualifying. The good news is any activity that may form would be very hit or miss and I expect more miss than hit.
Another small threat of isolated storms occurs Saturday afternoon and evening for the final Sprint Cup practice and the Nationwide race. Just like today the threat is very small and the activity will be more miss than hit.
2 p.m. EDT
Nationwide Practice – Partly sunny, chance of an isolated shower/storm – temp: 83
3:30 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup Practice – Partly sunny, chance of an isolated shower/storm – temp: 84
5 p.m. EDT
Nationwide Final Practice – Partly sunny, chance of an isolated shower/storm – temp: 84
7 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup Qualifying – Partly sunny, chance of an isolated shower/storm – temp: 82
10 a.m. EDT
Sprint Cup Practice – Mostly sunny – temp: 79
11 a.m. EDT
Nationwide Qualifying – Mostly sunny – temp: 81
1 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup Final Practice – Partly sunny, chance of an isolated shower/storm – temp: 87
2:30 p.m. EDT
Nationwide Race – Partly sunny, chance of an isolated shower/storm – temp: 89
5 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup Pre-race – Mostly sunny – temp: 88
6 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup Coca-Cola 600 – Mostly sunny – temp: 86
8 p.m. EDT
Coca-Cola 600 – Mostly clear – temp: 83
10 p.m. EDT
Coca-Cola 600 – Mostly clear – temp: 77
Wait a second. You're telling me you missed the NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway because you had other things to do on a Saturday night?
I'm kidding, of course. Ratings for Saturday night races are traditionally lower than Sunday afternoon races because people often are out and about on Saturday evenings.
So if you didn't get a chance to watch the Charlotte race and you're waking up this morning wondering what happened, here's a recap for you:
• The first 300 laps were uneventful. I'm not exaggerating when I say the majority of the Bank of America 500 was a single-file parade with no passing.
Drivers marveled at how difficult it was to pass, and even cars as fast as the race leader had difficulty lapping slower cars when they caught them.
Jeff Gordon told his team via radio that he'd never seen conditions this bad in all his races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
• Brad Keselowski had an off-night. Despite having loads of momentum and a brand new car at Charlotte, Keselowski was mired in the mid-20s for most of the evening. Here's how he explained it after the race.
• Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s pit crew screws up for the second time in three Chase races. Another loose wheel costs NASCAR's most popular driver again as he has to pit under green. After the race, he says the mistakes are "frustrating and disappointing."
• All of the sudden, it got interesting with 34 laps to go. Shortly after a restart, Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle made contact and both sustained damage. They disagreed on who was at fault, of course.
• Then, with 19 laps remaining, the most stunning moment of the night: Jimmie Johnson wrecks. The five-time champ suffered his worst Chase finish since the infamous Texas wreck with Sam Hornish Jr. in 2009 after bashing into the wall head-first. He nearly saved his car after Ryan Newman got him loose, but he ultimately couldn't hold it.
• Matt Kenseth wins the race, holding off Kyle Busch. Kenseth leads the final 25 laps for his first Chase win since 2007. Check the complete NASCAR Charlotte race results here.
• Johnson falls to eighth in the point standings. At this point, the three primary Chase contenders are points leader Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Kenseth. Fourth-place Kyle Busch is 18 points behind. Click here to check the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings.
After a hard-fought battle for the runner-up spot on Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Carl Edwards had some words for Kyle Busch on pit road. Edwards leaned into the cockpit of the No. 18 car and expressed his frustration at how Busch raced him late in the race.
Edwards said he was upset Busch came across his nose going into Turn 3 instead of leaving room and driving to the high side.
"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," Edwards said.
Busch contended there was "no malicious intent involved" in the move, his car simply got loose racing hard with Edwards.
"It just started steering and kind of free‑wheeling, so I just let it go," Busch said. "I ran him a little tight. Essentially it made me run him a little tight out there on (Turn) 2 and I just hugged on his door down the stretch to kind of side draft him to keep him alongside of me to give me another chance at redeeming myself through (Turns) 3 and 4 and getting back by him and it worked out."
Edwards said he simply had to take Busch's word for it and chalked it up to hard racing.
"We should definitely be racing each other hard," Edwards said. "It's just that there's a difference between racing hard and then cutting across the guy's nose."
After two Chase races, Jimmie Johnson's chances at a six-consecutive title were being questioned by some. After four races, he was right back in the thick of things, three points outside of the lead.
But following Saturday night's hard hit and 34th-place finish, the five-time series champion is eighth in the Chase standings – 35 points out of the lead – and facing an uphill battle to defend his title.
"We just have to go racing; that is all there is to it," Johnson said. "There are five races left, and right now all we have are those five races. Definitely not the night we wanted. This is not going to help us win a sixth championship."
Johnson promised he and the No. 48 team "won't quit" and "will go for every point" they can in the five remaining Chase races.
Things remained close at the top of the standings following Saturday night's race, with Carl Edwards extending his lead over Kevin Harvick to five points. Matt Kenseth was able to move to third in the Chase after scoring the win, while Kyle Busch jumped four spots to fourth.
Both Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch fell in the standings after disappointing runs.
Here are the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings after five Chase races:
Had his Hendrick Motorsports pit crew not made another mistake in the Chase, it still wasn't going to be a great night for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But instead of finishing 19th, as he did on Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Earnhardt Jr. said he could have been 11th or 12th without a loose lugnut that forced him to hit pit road again under green.
Two weeks ago at Dover, Earnhardt Jr.'s result was also impacted by a loose wheel.
NASCAR's most popular driver certainly wouldn't be leading the Chase had his pit crew not made those two key errors; but he also wouldn't be 60 points out of the lead, either.
"It's very costly," he said. "You want to finish as high as you can in the points, no matter where that is. You want to do the best you can. And we're not doing the best we can. It's disappointing and frustrating."
Earnhardt Jr. stopped short of calling for any changes to his pit crew, however, adding crew chief Steve Letarte shouldn't do anything "drastic."
"I believe in these guys," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Every time I come down pit road, I'm excited about the group that's going to put tires on my car. We just made a mistake, and I'm sure he won't let that happen again.
"I believe in them and understand everyone's human. But I'm pretty upset that we're just not capitalizing on opportunities."
The driver said it was important for his crewmen to execute on their opportunities, because there are other tire changers in waiting to fill the spots of those who err too often.
"You know, you can't make (mistakes) too many times before somebody will come in there and fill your place," he said.
Earnhardt Jr. said he was particularly frustrated because his team "should finish in the top 10 every week," but instead it often shoots itself in the foot.
"We're either beating ourselves or making mistakes or circumstances just aren't happening for us," he said. "We can't really seem to put together a clean race and we have to work real hard just to kind of make up for the things we do to ourselves.
"We work really hard, at least. So we're definitely learning a lot of lessons in that regard."
Tony Stewart suffered costly right-rear damage after an incident with Greg Biffle on Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and the two drivers couldn't reach a consensus on who was to blame afterward.
With a huge run on Stewart with 33 laps to go, Biffle made a move to the outside exiting Turn 4 but caught the outside wall and made contact with the right side of Stewart's car. The contact cut the left front tire and sent the No. 16 hard into the outside wall, ending any chance Biffle had at a solid finish.
On the team radio, Biffle accused Stewart of running him "up into the fence," while Stewart claimed Biffle tried to wreck him.
"I had been good all night at the top down there and I had a hell of a run," Biffle said after his 15th-place finish. "I was coming on him like crazy and he just came off there and didn't leave enough room. (He) left about three-quarters of a car length.
"When I came off the wall, we were kind of hooked together because my left front was jammed in his right rear. Halfway down the frontstretch we were hooked together until I got off of him. Obviously, that's what cut the tire."
Stewart said he didn't know exactly what happened, but wasn't happy about it in the immediate aftermath on the team radio. At the time, he said Biffle intentionally tried to wreck him but was calmer after the race.
"I don't know if he hit the wall and got into us and couldn't get off of us or if...he made contact in (Turn) 3," Stewart said after the race. "I didn't try to put him in a bad spot. So I don't know if he thought we did something wrong or not. I honestly don't think we did anything wrong. If I did, I'm sorry."
Biffle denied the second contact was retaliation or any expression of frustration and said, "I would've just wrecked him if that was the case."
As if Biffle's night was not bad enough, he made contact with something flying through the air with about 15 laps to go in the race. The object, which he guessed was a heavy piece of lead, "smashed" the center brace in the window and knocked out the one in front of the driver's seat.
Saturday night's race was a pretty good summation of Biffle's overall season. With 12 finishes outside the top 30 and 17 finishes of 15th or worse, Biffle is 16th in points. Poor luck, mistakes on pit road and a host of other things have consistently hurt the team's results.
"We didn't make it on fuel; caution came out; lug nut," he said, reflecting on the season.
Unlike Biffle, Stewart is still alive in the points race and is 24 points behind Chase leader Carl Edwards.
"We still have half of the Chase races to go," Stewart said. "A lot can happen."
Until Jimmie Johnson's stunning crash late in Saturday night's Bank of America 500, the most surprising development in the NASCAR's Charlotte Motor Speedway race was Brad Keselowski's off-night.
Keselowski spent much of the Charlotte race mired in the mid-20s before rallying for a 16th-place finish. Still, a result outside the top 15 is painful in the Chase, and it dropped Keselowski to sixth place in the Sprint Cup Series standings.
He's now 25 points behind championship leader Carl Edwards.
The disappointing result for Keselowski seemed to come out of the blue. His No. 2 Penske Racing team had brought a new car to Charlotte and seemed full of both optimism and momentum.
So what happened?
"This particular tire and track combination is so different than everywhere else we go, what it took to be successful we just didn't have in our back pocket," Keselowski said. "We just didn't have what we needed tonight."
Keselowski said the team "missed the setup a little bit" and added he did a "bad job" in qualifying. The combination of those two factors, he said, put them behind.
In addition, Keselowski was the victim of an ill-timed caution flag twice after pitting under green. He speculated if the yellows had fallen at a different time, "we could have probably had an eighth- or ninth-place day."
"I feel like I know what was wrong," he said. "I wish we could run this race tomorrow and come back with a little different setup. But we just didn't catch the right breaks."
Keselowski said heading into Charlotte that any driver 20 or more points behind the leaders had little chance of winning the championship – a group that now includes him.
So now what?
"Well, I don't think (the outlook) is terrible," he said. "It's not better than it was coming in, but I don't think it's terrible. I feel like the way this Chase is going, with the 48 having the problems he had tonight and some of the other things you're seeing, it could come right back to us."
Matt Kenseth won Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but it may not have been the story of the night.
With 18 laps to go, five-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson got loose after close racing with Ryan Newman and began to spin, then smashed his car head-first into the wall.
The result may have crushed Johnson's chances of another title. He finished 34th and dropped to eighth in the standings – 35 points behind Chase leader Carl Edwards.
Kyle Busch finished second to Kenseth and Edwards was third.
We'll have plenty of post-race coverage right here on SBNation.com, so stay tuned for more...
NASCAR Charlotte results:
Prior to Saturday night's Bank of America 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, the wives and girlfriends of NASCAR hit the track in the 'Better Half Dash' charity event.
Jacquelyn Butler was able to use the coaching of her boyfriend – and former Bandolero champion – David Ragan to move under Ashley Allgaier with eight laps to go to take the victory in the inaugural event.
"That was crazy," Butler said. "That was fun. I'm ready to go out and do it again next week."
Allgaier had dominated the event, leading a race-high 17 laps, until the handling of the car went away with 10 laps to go, allowing Butler to close the gap.
"Every time I'd drive down in the corner, it would start to spin out or I'm going straight to the wall," Allgaier said. "So, I'm going to blame it on the tires."
Trisha Mears was also able to get around Allgaier to finish second.
"I definitely got lucky today, just staying out of the way of all the spinning cars," she said.
The amateur drivers showed their inexperience early in the race as the event was slowed by five cautions in the first four laps. None of the incidents were as serious as Katie Kenseth's practice wreck two weeks ago, in which she broke her shoulder.
Here is how they finished:
It's NASCAR race night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and we've got the actual race start time, the starting lineup and some other facts about the Bank of America 500 for you below.
Start time: The command to start engines will be given by a representative from Charlotte public schools at 7:39 p.m. Eastern time. After a few pace laps, the green flag will wave at 7:48 p.m. Eastern. So if you want to skip the pre-race show and just tune in for the race, flip on your TV set at 7:48.
Race name/distance: The Bank of America 500 is a 334 laps around the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway for a total of 500 miles.
TV and radio: Heads up! Tonight's race is NOT on ESPN. Instead, it's on your local ABC affiliate. If you aren't near a TV or can't watch, the radio broadcast can be found on your local Performance Racing Network (PRN) affiliate. Click here to see a list of PRN stations where you can listen.
National anthem: Country music star Sara Evans, who is doing a pre-race concert, will sing the national anthem. Prior the anthem, Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne will give the invocation from inside his car!
Tickets: There are still plenty of tickets available for tonight's race if you want to make a last-minute trip.
Weather: Fans in attendance for tonight's race are looking at mostly clear skies and a temperature around 60 degrees, according to our unofficial NASCAR weatherman.
Last time: Kevin Harvick zoomed past Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the final turn when Earnhardt Jr. ran out of gas, giving Harvick a Coca-Cola 600 victory. One year ago, Jamie McMurray added to his haul of big 2010 race victories by winning the fall Charlotte race.
Starting lineup for tonight's NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway (Chase drivers in bold):
Following Denny Hamlin's 16th-place finish at Kansas last week, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver made some eyebrow-raising comments about the state of his team.
"I think we know what direction to go in; whether we can get there or not, got to have cooperation from everyone," he said then. "People need to be open-minded to make changes."
Hamlin expanded on his comments Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, saying it was about "getting everyone at the shop to buy in to what I feel like we need to work on."
And after some "big meetings" that took place during the week at JGR, Hamlin said he feels like "everyone's on board."
"I think that you're going to see a change in performance because of it," he said.
Hamlin made an important admission on Thursday: He told reporters that during the summer, at the height of JGR's struggles with mechanical problems and engine failures, "I kind of shut down to them a little bit" in terms of communication.
That's significant because ever since Tony Stewart left JGR, Hamlin had been one of the most influential voices in the organization.
"I wasn't giving up on them, but I was just like, ‘What does it matter how fast our cars are if we can't finish?' type of attitude," he said. "That's not the way to approach it by any means. Opening that communication back up, it's going to send us in a different direction, and I think that direction is what's going to make our cars faster."
Hamlin recalled the end of the 2009 season, where his No. 11 team steadily improved throughout the Chase and then entered 2010 ready to contend for the title.
He's hoping for a similar situation at this point.
"I see a few employees at Gibbs here this weekend that you don't see all the time, so I think that everyone is starting to buy into the fact that knowing our performance is not where it needs to be," he said. "You look and (Kyle Busch) hasn't been leading as many laps here lately as what he has in the past. Everyone's starting to figure out that we have to go to work."
Where does the team start to get better? Hamlin recently drove a Michael Waltrip Racing car during an electronic fuel injection test and said the car's handling sparked some ideas to bring to JGR.
"You got to kind of mesh those worlds (between JGR and MWR)," Hamlin said. "It definitely opens up your eyes to see different changes that you might want to have."
Jeff Gordon ended the regular season with three-consecutive top-three finishes, including a win at Atlanta. Going into the final 10 races of the Chase, Gordon was among the favorites to end Jimmie Johnson's reign as NASCAR champion.
Four races into the Chase and Gordon is 47 points out of the lead and in danger of being eliminated from championship contention all together.
But Gordon is not giving up - not yet at least.
The four-time champion admitted Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that the Chase has "not gone the way we hoped" and that to climb out of their current situation and win the title, they would have to "win a bunch of races."
However, their approach towards that goal has not changed, and will not change - until they are mathematically eliminated from winning the championship.
Gordon said it was "very disappointing" to fall to 10th in the points after the first four races of the Chase, but is proud of his team's effort throughout the season.
"This has been a great year no matter what happens," he said. "We were extremely excited about coming into this Chase with the momentum that we had as a team and just the wins that we have had and the great things that are happening to this team."
Currently more than a full race out of the Chase lead, Gordon needs "great things" to happen if he hopes to earn that elusive fifth title.
After Brad Keselowski won last week's Nationwide Series race at Kansas Speedway, runner-up Carl Edwards told reporters about what he perceived to be a failed attempt by Keselowski to get Edwards penalized on a restart.
On the restart in question, Edwards had initially gone past race leader Keselowski, but the eventual race winner quickly zoomed back by in a faster car.
As Edwards explained it: "The reason I cleared him on the one restart is because he was doing his best to get me black-flagged. So he lifted (off the gas) after he went to make sure I crossed the line first and he let me clear him. I think he realized they weren't going to give me the black flag, so he made sure to go back by. I thought that was pretty interesting."
Edwards added the restart was one of several unnecessary "little tricks" Keselowski tried to pull during the race and said it was "almost a little comical to watch a guy have that fast of a car trying to do all these little things he didn't need to do."
The next day, Edwards raised the subject of restarts in the Sprint Cup Series drivers' meeting. Without mentioning Keselowski by name, Edwards asked NASCAR what would happen if the second-place car beat the leader to the start/finish line in the event of a false start.
At the time, NASCAR seemed to dismiss Edwards' question. Officials publicly told Edwards to make sure the second-place car didn't cross the starting line first regardless of the circumstances – that's a penalty. But they also said they'd keep an eye on it.
A few hours later, Keselowski was leading the race coming to a restart with 22 laps remaining. NASCAR came over the radio and warned the driver not to give officials a reason to believe he was engaging in any funny business on the restart. Keselowski promptly lost the lead to eventual winner Jimmie Johnson.
Edwards' comments and the NASCAR warning seemed to bother Keselowski (he referred to it as "BS" on Twitter) and after his qualifying lap on Thursday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Keselowski was still unhappy about how the sequence of events went down.
"The only thing that changes the way you restart is when NASCAR comes over and gives you hell about it," Keselowski said. "Hell, they were giving me hell about it before the race ever started. It certainly wasn't anything I was pleased about, no."
The Restart Game
Keselowski compared NASCAR restarts to a game of paper-rock-scissors. There are three basic options for the leader: Take off as soon as he gets into the restart zone; wait as long as possible and then take off; or give an indication that he's taking off but then slow down either by tapping the brakes or letting off the gas.
"Brake-checking," as it's called, is frowned upon by NASCAR. And that's what officials warned Keselowski against doing at Kansas.
"I didn't the day before, that's the ironic part," Keselowski said. "The move that I pulled to beat Carl on Saturday in Kansas, I didn't pull the one that he accused me of."
But because NASCAR stepped in and told Keselowski they were watching him closely, the driver felt officials essentially took away one of his paper-rock-scissors options.
"For every strategy there is, there is a counter," he said. "...If a guy pulls out paper, you're like ‘I've got ya – scissors!' So when NASCAR comes over the radio and takes one of those away from you, that just makes it easier for the other one. And I think in this particular instance that's what they were trying to do."
Keselowski has watched a race from the scoring tower before and sympathizes with officials for the difficult "ball-strike calls" they have to make. The driver said it's very hard to see exactly when the cars hit the restart zone and if they go early or late.
So he could have ignored NASCAR's command and gambled by still pulling his move anyway. However, he added, "it's not worth the risk" to try.
Ultimately, that's what he was still upset about. Because Edwards raised the subject and Keselowski was warned, the Penske Racing driver had one less weapon in his arsenal when going for the win.
"What they had actually warned me against doing," Keselowski said, "was exactly what Jimmie did on the last restart."
Mind games are a part of professional sports – especially when it comes to the championship battle.
When the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup got underway, Jimmie Johnson had two less-than-stellar performances and was thought by some to be down and out; his championship run of six consecutive titles a near impossibility.
Two weeks later, Johnson is four points out of the championship lead and back in the minds of the competition.
Yet for Chase contender Kevin Harvick, he is not ready to get caught up in the mind games, calling it "a matter of circumstances."
Harvick and the No. 29 team has been able to "overcome some pretty big hurdles" and is confident the team can remain focused on their championship efforts.
"We just need to keep protecting the things that we are doing and not shooting ourselves in the foot," Harvick said.
Where does Harvick's insight come from? Perhaps watching Denny Hamlin's championship hopes fall by the wayside at the end of the 2011 season.
Harvick said Thursday he knew last year at Homestead that Hamlin was not going to win the championship.
"He couldn't hardly sit still and was so nervous going into that race he could hardly stand it," Harvick said. "I could see it, Jimmie was gouging at it. I just sat back and watched."
That prediction came to fruition as Hamlin was unable to recover from a disappointing finish at Phoenix and lost the title to Johnson in the last race of the year.
Hamlin, who struggled throughout much of this season, said it is "hard not to get consumed" by one bad race in the Chase, especially for those going after their first title.
While he will not be able to use the lessons he learned from last year's disappointment – Hamlin is currently 54 points behind Carl Edwards in the Chase standings – he is eager to watch this year's battle.
His advice? Relax and have fun.
"Those guys that are searching for the championship for the first time are trying to get to the peak goal of their racing career," he said. "Everything they've worked for their entire lives and dreamed of is just a couple races away and a couple spots away in any given race. That's when your stomach really gets turning is when you're in those situations."
With the exception of Thursday when a few rain drops fell, the rest of the Charlotte race weekend is dry. The cold front that brought the showers and storms to the southeastern part of the United States will move east out over the Atlantic as drier air moves in for Friday and Saturday.
Expect sunny days and clear nights with high temperatures Friday and Saturday in the mid 70s. It will be breezy Friday afternoon with possible wind gusts near 30 mph.
3 p.m EDT
Nationwide Qualifying – Sunny, windy gusts near 30 – temp: 76
4:30 p.m EDT
Sprint Cup Practice– Sunny & breezy – temp: 77
5:50 p.m EDT
Sprint Cup Final Practice – Mostly clear & breezy – temp: 73
7:30 p.m EDT
Nationwide Race – Mostly Clear – temp: 65
7:30 p.m EDT
Sprint Cup Race – Clear and cool – temp: 60
Please follow me on Twitter @NASCAR_WXMAN for the latest Weather updates during the race.
Qualifying Thursday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway was close, but Chase contender Tony Stewart was the fastest with a lap of 28.131 seconds at a speed of 191.959 mph.
Stewart, who was the 36th driver to make an attempt, knocked Matt Kenseth off the provisional pole by a mere 0.006 seconds.
"That's a (Ryan) Newman lap there," Stewart said. "We've been pretty solid since we unloaded, so that's a perfect way to start the weekend so far."
Missing out on the pole, Kenseth said he "left some out there" and wished he could make another attempt at the lap. Starting second, Kenseth has qualified sixth or better in the four out of the five Chase races.
Carl Edwards had a strong run going, but lost a lot of time off the exit of the fourth corner and posted the third-fastest time of the session.
"If I would have known how good we were down the back straightaway I would have gone a little easier through (Turns) 3 and 4," Edwards said with a smile. "It's nice to be disappointed with third-place in qualifying."
Joey Logano held the top spot for much of the time early in the session until Dale Earnhardt Jr. set off a string of cars that exchanged the provisional pole until Stewart captured the top spot with 10 cars to go.
Here is the complete starting lineup for Saturday's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (Chase drivers in bold):
DNQ: Geoffrey Bodine, Scott Speed, Josh Wise
After getting out of his car at Kansas Speedway last weekend, Dale Earnhardt Jr. told reporters he was more worried about his fantasy football team than the NASCAR point standings.
It seemed he was perhaps making a statement about the Chase and acknowledging he was basically out of it. But on Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Earnhardt Jr. said he "wasn't expecting everybody to read between the lines too much there."
"We're quite a ways behind and you sorta, kinda adjust your goals," he said. "When we got as far behind as we are, I think just winning a race became the priority."
If that sounds as if he's resigned to not win the championship this season, hang on a second. He added this: "If you win races, the points just take care of themselves."
Still, Earnhardt Jr. said his team still plans to stay the course and not try anything too crazy to get a win. It's important to him to "put forth the best account you can for yourself in the points."
"You don't want to finish outside the top 10 (in the standings) over some silly gamble," he said. "You make reasonable choices just like when we were here in Charlotte last time. We made a choice to stretch the fuel and we felt like that was a reasonable opportunity for us and the repercussions were not that severe."
It comes down to taking more gambles, Earnhardt Jr. said, but "nothing stupid."
"You don't want to make such a ridiculous call that you look foolish," he added.
Winning a race this season remains a goal for Earnhardt Jr., and he has six races remaining to do it. If the team doesn't win at Charlotte, Talladega, Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix or Homestead, the Hendrick Motorsports said it would be "a disappointment" despite also being "an improvement" over last year.
"We are happy with the gains that we have made, and I think that the team and Steve (Letarte) expect more and I do, too," he said. "We are happy that we gained, but we are not winning enough races and running as well as we would like to. That is what we will work on."
As team owner Richard Childress took questions from reporters Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Clint Bowyer looked on with a keen ear to what his current and soon-to-be former boss had to say.
Bowyer officially announced he would leave Richard Childress Racing for Michael Waltrip Racing last weekend at Kansas, saying he was "surprised" and "disappointed" he could not work out a deal with RCR.
This weekend, Childress had the floor and was able to offer his thoughts on the failed negotiations with Bowyer.
"We knew what our financial model was, and Clint knew where he needed to be, and we just couldn't never come together to make it work," he said. "We had the car completely sponsored, but it just didn't work out."
With a car completely funded for the following season, it seems the issue that caused the rift between the two centered on Bowyer's salary.
Rumors swirled throughout the summer months about Bowyer's demands, one of which involved helicopter rides from the track. Throughout it all, Bowyer denied the rumors -- he even joked about a friend requesting a miniature pony as part of the deal.
Childress said he was "very sad" the two could not come to an agreement, despite the failed negotiations.
"He's going to be a really great driver," Childress said of Bowyer. "You never say never; hopefully he'll be back someday at RCR."
Looking ahead to next year, Childress expects RCR to cut back to a competitive three-car team that occasionally runs a fourth car with grandson Austin Dillon behind the wheel.
After fielding numerous questions about sponsorship, negotiations with Bowyer and the future of RCR, Bowyer interjected – trying to change the subject to an announced partnership with Cheerios and the USO to send postcards to the families of service members – "How about them postcards?"
"Yeah, somebody ask me about the postcards," Childress said with a smile.
In one of the most unusual announcements in memory, Joe Gibbs Racing said it made room for Dollar General's 12 races on the No. 20 Sprint Cup Series car next season by asking current sponsor The Home Depot to cut back.
It seems completely stunning that in this current economic environment, a race team would actually ask a full-season sponsor to not be a full-season sponsor anymore. But that's exactly what JGR maintained on Thursday, even after repeated opportunities to clarify.
"It wasn't Home Depot coming to us saying, 'Hey, look...'" team owner Joe Gibbs said. "It was us going to Home Depot."
JGR says it has a "long-term deal" with Home Depot, which extends beyond next season. So if that's the case, why ask a full season sponsor to pay less money?
According to team president J.D. Gibbs, it's because the Dollar General deal was so sweet (12 Cup races, a full-season Nationwide sponsorship on Brian Scott's No. 11 car, 10 other Nationwide races and 10 races on a Kyle Busch Motorsports truck) that "you don't want to pass on that and let someone else get the opportunity."
"We just kind of went to (Home Depot) and said, 'Here's the plan. Are you interested?'" J.D. Gibbs said. "They looked at it, went through the details and said, 'Yeah, that makes sense.'"
The perception in the garage is different. Carl Edwards had been rumored to be very close to signing with Home Depot and Gibbs until the home improvement company concluded it was too expensive. Now, the company appears to be cutting back.
Gibbs said that wasn't the case, but wouldn't elaborate. He insisted, though, that it was JGR's idea to go to Home Depot and ask the company to reduce its financial commitment.
"They worked with us," Gibbs said. "They didn't have to say 'yes.' It made sense in the big picture. They're just a good partner."
But if Home Depot had previously planned to stick to a full season, is JGR really getting so much more value with Dollar General? A different way to look at the Dollar General deal:
• The 12 Cup races would have already been covered by Home Depot;
• Brian Scott's Nationwide season would have been covered by the Scott family (so essentially, this program may have been a throw-in for Dollar General);
• Dollar General will sponsor 10 Nationwide races for Kyle Busch or Logano, so that's added value;
• Kyle Busch's truck is getting Dollar General sponsorship for 10 races, but that money is going to KBM, not JGR.
So ultimately, why would JGR ask Home Depot to cut back?
"To me, the reality of it was it was a good fit and worked for both of us," Gibbs said. "It was a plus for us and a plus for them. If it was a negative on one side, I'd say, 'Yeah, it'd be weird.' But there's not a negative to it."
In this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup, one position could mean the difference between champion and also-ran. With so much on the line, it seems unlikely that a devious strategy such as team orders would play a role in determining the 2011 champion.
Or maybe not.
Team orders have been a controversial issue in other forms of racing, especially Formula One. Yet listening to some of the drivers on Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, you have to wonder if NASCAR reached the point where team orders will become an ever-increasing issue.
Take a look at the controversy at the end of the Richmond race a few weeks ago and judge for yourself.
After discussing the need for a caution and giving constant updates on the battle between Gordon and Harvick for the lead, RCR's Paul Menard was told to switch to the second radio channel, then happened to spin off Turn 4 to bring out the caution.
Menard denied the claim.
NASCAR investigated the allegations.
End of story, right?
But fast-forward to the end of last weekend's race at Kansas Speedway, and there was another potential RCR controversy.
As Clint Bowyer was racing Kevin Harvick for position, team owner Richard Childress came over Bowyer's radio and told the team to switch to the second channel. Harvick eventually gained the position on his teammate and finished the day sixth, leaving the track one point behind Carl Edwards for the points lead.
While Childress said he was talking with crew chief Shane Wilson about specific changes to the car, he said, "Just use your own instinct on that and answer it yourself" when pressed on the issue.
"These guys are smart," Childress said, adding he would never tell his drivers what to do. "They all understand; Hendrick's guys understand what's going on, Roush's guys understand what's going on, everybody understands. You're not going to do nothing that's not legal or not right, but you're going to race hard for your company."
Harvick, sitting second in the Chase standings, said his teammates have been beneficial in helping with setups and "things on the race track" to help the No. 29 team win the championship, but would not discuss his teammates conceding positions on the track.
"Every point matters and you just race as hard as you can and see where it all falls at the end of the day," he said.
Hendrick Motorsports' Jeff Gordon said he will "consider" giving up a spot to teammate Jimmie Johnson only after he is mathematically eliminated from the championship, but not before that.
"(For) 20th place maybe, it's not worth (battling) for 20th-place," Gordon joked. "Certainly not for a top-five."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., also deep in the Chase standings, said he "knows what's on the line" for other guys in the championship battle.
While Childress' radio chatter seemed to raise questions, Earnhardt Jr. believe he is smart enough to make "the right decision when the time comes" without help from crew chief Steve Letarte or anyone else in the organization.
"I like to race, I like to race for every position – but at the same time, man, you do what you think is right and do what you think is the right choice at the time," he said. "It's just a case-by-case scenario. If we're running at the back and he needs a point, that might be reasonable to give him 24th."
Much like Gordon, however, when racing for a top-10, Earnhardt Jr. noted, "you've got to race hard for those positions" regardless.
Take a look at the weekend schedule for the fifth race of the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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