Forget the Sprint All-Star Race, the Coca-Cola 600 or Saturday’s 500-miler. NASCAR’s biggest race at Charlotte Motor Speedway happens on Monday in front of a handful of officials, mechanics and high-tech engineers. At stake: keeping the future of the sport intact after a season of less-than-scintillating competition with NASCAR’s much-ballyhooed Gen-6 chassis. It’s a test insiders say could kill off the dreaded “aero push,” enemy number one in what’s made trying to pass the leader a Mission: Impossible assignment.
As we hit the Chase’s halfway point, where words like “debris,” “strategy” and “survival” dominate the conversation, you can understand why there’s a heightened sense of urgency. As a small consolation, this last battle at Charlotte, between reigning champ Brad Keselowski and Hendrick Motorsports’ Kasey Kahne did showcase what we used to see on a weekly basis. There was good, clean, hard competition, side-by-side for the win where both drivers were able to pass – and pass back. But that five-minute slice has come few and far between these days, with Charlotte’s ending and Fontana back in March overrun by a series of races where drivers seem to “march in place.” Single-file, settled in position becomes the dominant order of the day, a full green-flag run taking place with little more than one or two positions inside the top 10 changing hands.
For the intermediate ovals, it’s aerodynamics, tires and the Chase as the combined cause. Goodyear is working hard on its end, with a “multi-zone” tire at Atlanta and Kansas proving a step in the right direction. Now, aerodynamics is being tackled. The Chase? We’re unlikely to see any changes there until 2015, if at all.
But at least all parties involved are trying — and trying hard — with certain things within their control. Television ratings during the season’s second half that are a smidgen of what they used to be during the sport’s peak years served as a wakeup call. The fact NASCAR had to force its current television partners TNT and ESPN to keep covering the sport because they so desperately wanted to leave served as a kick in the pants. The powers that be — the ones with the cash – they know change must come.
Now, it’s up to the guys with the wind tunnels, mechanical brains and creative muscle behind the scenes to make NASCAR shine at a new level.
Back to the race at Charlotte. The engines are revved and it’s time to shift up “Through thee Gears” …
FIRST GEAR: A crucial win for Keselowski – not just for this year but next To say the reigning champ, just the second ever to miss the Chase, has been living under a black cloud would be an understatement. Did you see David Ortiz, tying the game against the Tigers Sunday night in the eighth inning? Keselowski has had that type of heartbreaker happen at least a half-dozen times this season. Victory or even a solid finish would be a few laps away only for extraordinary circumstances to take charge.
For Keselowski, Charlotte started as one of “those nights” again when he left an early pit stop with a jack attached. Stuck mid-pack, he was mired 15th, 27 seconds back of the leader as late as Lap 160. But a mid-race debris caution kept him on the lead lap, and by the time the fourth and final yellow came out with less than 30 circuits remaining, the No. 2 car had worked its way up to fifth position. At the time, Keselowski was running lap times comparable to the leaders; he just needed a lucky break to show it.
There’s that word again — luck —where intangibles finally started tilting his way.
“This is a very good team,” Keselowski said after fighting from the third row, on that final restart to eventually blow by Kahne and take control of the race. “Along the way, all season long we've had the speed. It's just been one of those years where you say, ‘How much more can they throw at you?’ And I think we ran out of things for them to throw at us tonight with the jack and still find a way to win.”
Love him or hate him, know this much about Keselowski, who has been the epicenter of controversy in 2013 dating back to a February USA Today interview in which he criticized aspects of the sport and questioned the “100% rule” just over one week ago: This driver cares about his team, his people and the long-term confidence of the program; he was adamant no changes in the face of failure were necessary. Getting a victory was very important for morale, making that edict easier to swallow within Penske Racing as they keep the core intact after such a difficult season and go with the motto of simply “shrugging it off” and starting from scratch in 2014.
“Those guys spend a lot of time away from their friends and family,” Keselowski said of his crew, understanding the importance of winning at NASCAR’s home base. “They make sacrifices to essentially make me a hero, and that's not something that's lost on me. So when they have the opportunity to come to Charlotte, bring their family and friends and kind of showcase what they do and then you combine that with success, I think it really validates to them some of those sacrifices they made, whether it's missing their kid's soccer game or whatnot, and it's something very special for them.”
SECOND GEAR: Johnson’s missed opportunityNo doubt, the No. 48 team was primed and ready to walk away from Charlotte with the points lead, halfway towards that elusive sixth title. Holding a comfy lead with the most fuel of anyone on the lead lap and one of the fastest cars on track, victory was a mere formality.
And then came that pesky debris.
It was never shown on camera. Multiple drivers claim they never saw it. One claimed he never even looked. Yet the yellow clearly changed the race’s outcome, leaving Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus to simply wonder what might have been.
But here’s the cold, ugly truth for fans of the No. 48: Johnson and Knaus still managed to beat themselves. A choice for four tires, with just 10 cars on the lead lap, found Johnson third behind Kasey Kahne and unstable on a restart. It’s not the first time the team has struggled coming up to speed; take Kansas, one week ago, where Johnson nearly spun out in front of the field multiple times in a rollercoaster run. “Closing the deal” when these calls happen is part of what makes a champion. At some point these last three years, this duo forgot how to handle the ninth inning.
Meanwhile, rival Matt Kenseth steadily worked his way forward from 20th place, landing third in a “tortoise and the hare” approach after two straight wins to start the Chase. Even if Johnson had won, the No. 20 team was ready to minimize the damage and will continue to do so each and every week. If the No. 48 team doesn’t relearn how to do the same once adversity hits, title number six is little more than a pipe dream.
THIRD GEAR: Kahne returns to relevancy
Saturday night was a boon for Hendrick Motorsports, which combined to lead 313 of the race’s 334 laps. But perhaps none of its four drivers needed time at the front more than Kahne, the team’s intermediate track specialist who hasn’t really specialized in, well, anything this Chase. It had been four races and four finishes outside the top 10 for the driver whose postseason, to this point, is better known for an awkward New Hampshire interview that left the masses thinking he was hard of hearing, had a concussion or a combination of both.
“I wish I knew how to get my car to drive like it does here at other places,” he said of Charlotte after leading a race-high 138 laps. “I don't know if it's the tire or the track itself. But we just always run pretty good. It always gives us confidence when we leave here.”
A win at one point appeared in the cards after a two-tire stop on the final caution gave the No. 5 team track position. But second, after Keselowski tracked him down, is far from shabby; there’s enough momentum here to right the ship. Expect Kahne to be a contender at Texas and Homestead the remaining 1.5-milers on the schedule despite a postseason that will ultimately be termed disappointing.
FOURTH GEAR: Hamlin’s small victory Seventeen races. That’s how long this career-defining slump has been since Denny Hamlin last appeared in the top 10 at the conclusion of a Sprint Cup race. What would happen for most drivers holding that type of top-tier ride, one where his two teammates are competing for a title? They’d be holding a pink slip come the end of November — if they hadn’t been fired already.
Of course, Hamlin has an excuse: his ailing back leading to a month of missed time and likely offseason surgery. But that’s why a run of ninth place, which would have been disappointing for teammates Kenseth or Kyle Busch, means the world to this Joe Gibbs Racing outfit. This team needs to feel like it’s on the upward swing heading into the offseason to feel confident it’ll find chemistry once again. Perhaps the real test, though, will be at a place like Martinsville — a test on Hamlin’s back but a place in which he’s had the most success of anyone not named Johnson over the last six years.
Best wishes to Brian Vickers, out the rest of the season after doctors found a blood clot in his right calf. Vickers, who’s missed time for the problem before – it actually led to surgery to repair a hole in his heart a few years back – will thankfully play it safe. He’ll be back in time for the 2014 Daytona 500; in his place, no substitute has been named beyond Talladega, where Michael Waltrip was already scheduled to run the No. 55. … Best wishes No. 2 to a number of Michael Waltrip Racing employees who were told after Charlotte that they’ll be released at the end of the season. With sponsor NAPA along with driver Martin Truex Jr. leaving the organization, MWR is cutting back to two full-time entries for 2014. So what happens to NAPA and Truex? Buzz currently centers around Furniture Row Racing in a second car or as a fourth expansion team for Richard Childress Racing. … Just 13 cars wound up on the lead lap at Charlotte in both Cup races this season. Only the Dover race last month had fewer. … Keselowski was the first non-Chaser to win since Kahne did it, driving for Team Red Bull at Phoenix in November 2011.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter:@NASCARBowles