Weird things sometimes happen under the lights and NASCAR’s elite Cup Series did not disappoint as they took to the track at night in Charlotte. Here is what was surprising and not surprising from the halfway point in the Chase, with just five races remaining in the 2010 season.
Surprising: For the very first time at Charlotte Motor Speedway since the Chase for the Championship began, a non-Chase driver took the checkered flag and emotionally climbed out of his car to celebrate in Victory Lane. Jamie McMurray, a driver that has risen to the top in all major races with wins at the Daytona 500, the Brickyard, and now the night race in Charlotte, dedicated his victory to fellow competitor Shane Hmiel, who suffered life-threatening injuries in a serious wreck in a Silver Crown Series qualifying run. McMurray also thanked his dad, who was in Victory Lane with him for the first time this season, and talked emotionally about the power of prayer and its effect on him and his team this year.
Not Surprising: Following closely behind McMurray in the decidedly heated battle for the second place position were none other than four-time champion Jimmie Johnson and admittedly aggressive competitor Kyle Busch. While Busch won that battle, Johnson perhaps was the true winner, having overcome an early race spin and playing catch up all race long with continual coaching from crew chief Chad Knaus. Busch had his share of obstacles as well, at one point battling throttle issues. With Busch’s second place finish, the driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota climbed four positions in the point standings and also broke the record for the number of laps led, in his case now over 4,000 laps led, in NASCAR’s top three series. Jimmie Johnson, with his third place finish, maintained his standing as points leader, currently 41 points ahead of the second place contender.
Surprising: No one could have predicted how many of the Chase contenders would have problems at their home track under the lights. Kurt Busch, who was going for a Charlotte sweep and history, not only wrecked during practice but also wrecked early in the race. Tony Stewart also sustained damage to his incredibly unattractive race car after an incident involving his teammate. After leading the field to the green from the pole position, the other four-time champion Jeff Gordon suffered battery issues, losing power in his principal battery and going a lap down in trying to make the switch to the back up. Jeff Burton also had issues, causing caution number eight when he slid across teammate Clint Bowyer’s nose and spectacularly spun his car out of contention, finishing 20th.
Not Surprising: On the flip side, it was not surprising to yet again see many non-Chase competitors start to find their grooves as the season winds to a close. In addition to Jamie McMurray in Victory Lane, other non-Chasers also had good runs, including Joey Logano who finished seventh, David Reutimann who came in ninth, and David Ragan who had an unusually good finish in the top ten in his Live United No. 9 Ford.
Surprising: After such stellar runs in Fontana with Tony Stewart in Victory Lane and Ryan Newman finishing fifth, Stewart-Haas Racing had a terrible time back at the home track in Charlotte. Newman got the worst of it, crashing on lap two of the race, when he got loose, spun and hit the wall. The incident and the resulting damage relegated the driver to his worst finish in eight races, coming to the checkered flag in the 36th position. Stewart finished slightly better in the 21st position, but fell a spot in the Chase standings to sixth, now 177 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.
Not Surprising: Denny Hamlin, still in the hunt for this year’s championship, maintained the position of being poised to strike at Johnson for the coveted Sprint Cup. Hamlin, in his No. 11 FedEx Ground Toyota finished fourth in the Bank of America 500 and remains just 41 points behind Johnson in the Chase for the Championship standings.
Surprising: Strange things happened on pit road during the race at Charlotte, from speeding penalties to burning rubber in the pit boxes. Seasoned drivers and past champions Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon both had speeding penalties. While Busch was coming in hot to get tires after this spin on the track, Gordon was penalized for the second week in a row for being too fast on pit road, relegating him to a miserable 23rd place race finish and undoubtedly jeopardizing any hope for a fifth championship run.
Not Surprising: Kevin Harvick had his usual share of problems in the pits, with his crew having failure to perform yet again. Harvick did, however, overcome them to finish eighth in the race, keeping himself in the championship hunt, in the third position just 77 points shy of leader Johnson.
Surprising: In a surprising turn of events, Richard Petty Motorsports driver Kasey Kahne bailed from his No. 9 Budweiser Ford. Kahne and Sam Hornish tangled on Lap 124, with both suffering severe damage to their race cars. Kahne took the opportunity to leave the track, citing illness, and J.J. Yeley was enlisted to finish the race, bringing the car home in the 38th position.
Not Surprising: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had another miserable night at the office. The Hendrick Motorsports driver brought up the rear for his team, finishing 29th and sharing that his car felt like it had “concrete in the front shocks” and that his run was “expletive embarrassing.”
The Cup Series will head next to the short track at Martinsville, Virginia. The sixth race of the 10-race Chase, the Tums Fast Relief 500, will run on Sunday, October 24th at 1:00 PM EDT on ESPN.