Bank of America 500 a key test in Chase for the Sprint Cup

jutter@charlotteobserver.comOctober 11, 2013 

SPORTS CAR-NASCAR 12 CH

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Matt Kenseth waits in the garage for his team to finish making adjustments to their car on Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord.

JEFF SINER — MCT

— It’s easy to say Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway could help the championship chances of one of this year’s Sprint Cup Series title contenders.

But who?

A strong case can be made – either through season-long performance or far more recent results – for each of the top four drivers in the series standings.

To start, points leader Matt Kenseth and his three nearest competitors – Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon – all have won races at Charlotte in their respective careers, although some more recent than others.

The fact all four have separated themselves from the rest of the 13-driver Chase field four races into the 10-race playoff provides a pretty good indication Saturday night’s win could be decided among them.

And most of the them believe winning – not just good performances – will be key to capturing the championship.

Kenseth opened the Chase with consecutive victories at Chicagoland and New Hampshire, giving him a big boost. Not to mention throughout the course of this season, only three drivers have won on 1 1/2-mile speedways like Charlotte – himself, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch and Harvick.

Kenseth had won the previous two races entering last weekend’s race at Kansas, but the team struggled somewhat with the cold weather and new tire combination.

“I feel great (coming to Charlotte), but I don’t think the ground gets any more comfortable in Kansas with the success we had there before last weekend,” he said. “The tire kind of threw us for a loop a little bit more than some others, I think, and it was just a struggle.

“We kind of missed it there and salvaged what we could. Hoping for better things here. (Thursday) I don’t think was the start of that, so hopefully we’ll figure it out and be good Saturday.”

Johnson, a five-time series champion who trails Kenseth by three points, has six series wins at Charlotte, with his most recent in 2009. He and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team have won five times this season but none on a 1 1/2-mile speedway.

“We all know the history of the track, and we have really had some strong runs here over the years,” Johnson said. “I think the last couple of All-Star races, we’ve been able to hit the first race really well, and then when we come back for the 600 we are competitive.

“But it’s a little different than it was five or six years ago when they resurfaced the track. So we’re still trying to find that magic where we can separate ourselves each time we come back.”

Harvick moved into third in the series standings following his pole and subsequent victory last weekend at Kansas. He nearly replicated the start, qualifying second fastest for Saturday night’s race.

Two of Harvick’s three wins this season have come on 1 1/2-mile speedways.

“Well if we wouldn’t of had the pole last week we probably wouldn’t be disappointed this week,” said Harvick, who has won six poles in his career. “For us, qualifying has never been a strong suit of what we do.

“To have a better pit selection and not have to pass half the field to start the race and keep yourself on the lead lap and worry about your car in traffic is a good sign for us.”

Harvick’s disappointment in Thursday night’s qualifying came at the hands of Gordon, who was the final car to qualify and relegated Harvick to second place.

Gordon – who was a late addition to the Chase as an unprecedented 13th member thanks to NASCAR Chairman Brian France and a cheating scandal at the Richmond race – has saved his best performances for late in the season.

He has finished sixth or higher in three of the four Chase races so far, including a third last weekend at Kansas, a track very similar to Charlotte.

“To go out there and step it up and get the pole was really exciting,” said Gordon, who trails Kenseth by 32 points. “To do it here in Charlotte as well, I think it’s been a while since we’ve won a pole here.

“I’m very proud of this team; they deserve a lot of credit. They gave me a fantastic car not just (this weekend), but they have been bringing them for the last several weeks. That is making it a lot of fun for us.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

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