For a significant portion of Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte, status quo looked like it was going to be maintained at the top of the points standings.
Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, the top three drivers in the points standings entering the Chase, were bunched together at the front of the field and even occupied the top three spots in the race for a segment. It was going to take something big to catalyze a meaningful shift in the points standings.
When the caution flag flew on lap 223 for debris just after the field had cycled through green flag pit stops, Johnson and Hamlin pitted to try to make it the rest of the race on one stop. Keselowski stayed out. It wasn't terribly surprising; Johnson has admitted that saving fuel is a weak link for his team, the fuel mileage of the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas has been much discussed and exceptional fuel mileage was a reason that Keselowski won two weeks ago at Dover.
What happened next was surprising, however. As the field started the green flag pit stop cycle again, Keselowski, who was the race leader and had led the most laps, cruised past the entrance to pit road with 59 laps remaining in the race. His car started sputtering.
Keselowski coasted around to the pits, losing precious seconds both while he coasted on the track and in the pits as the crew worked to refire the car. He rejoined the race in 16th place, and was going to need to pit again to make it to the end on fuel.
He moved up to 11th by the time the checkered flag flew thanks to a combination of differing strategies and the speed of his car, but the (minimal) damage had been done. Thanks to that caution flag pit stop, Hamlin was able to push until the end and finished second, and while Johnson had to back off the throttle significantly over the final few laps, the cushion he had built in third was more than enough to maintain the position.
"It's like playing blackjack. Sometimes you get a good deal but you're not going to win them all," Keselowski said. "You know that, and you hope that when you're sitting there with 13 that you can just not have a lot of chips in the pile. We didn't lose too much. We got 11th out of day where everything kind of fell against us; the cautions at the beginning and the lack of them at the end and we still put out a respectable effort."
But yes, like Keselowski said, the damage in the points standings could have been much worse; it's not often that drivers who run out of fuel for an entire lap late in a race come back to finish 11th. And the points lead is still Keselowski's, the cushion is just smaller.
Who's up? We'll give this one to Hamlin and Johnson. While Clint Bowyer might have just made this Chase a four man race, Johnson essentially cut the deficit between he and Keselowski in half to seven, and Hamlin is now 15 points back. After this race last year, Tony Stewart was 24 points behind.
Who's down? No, this is not going to be a cop-out paragraph that will just say Dale Earnhardt Jr. and then be done with it. This award goes to Jeff Gordon, whose pit road speeding violation on lap 219 meant that he went a lap down serving the penalty. Gordon was never able to make the lap back and finished 18th, the lowest finishing position of any Chaser.
Who's out? And Gordon's penalty leads us to this. Sorry Jeff, you're now officially in the out column, 50 points back of Keselowski in 9th place. The same goes for you Tony Stewart. Smoke and company made a valiant effort after sustaining some substantial front-end damage on a restart crash early in the race, but a 50 point deficit is too much to overcome at this point. We're not going to split hairs, either. at 49 points back, you're done too, Martin Truex Jr.
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