CONCORD, N.C. -- Matt Kenseth thought briefly about ducking down onto the apron, but he knew he was going much too fast for that. So when Jimmie Johnson spun in front of him, all he could do was hit the brakes. And suddenly not just one top contender was knocked out of the Coca-Cola 600, but two.
An accident 66 laps from the finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway changed the complexion of one of the biggest events of the NASCAR season, wiping out not only the winner of last week's Sprint All-Star Race on the same track but also the driver who had established himself as the favorite Sunday night. Johnson spun, Kenseth slowed and was hit from behind by Juan Pablo Montoya, and two potential race winners wound up laps down with damaged cars.
"He wrecked, I saw it, I was going too fast to go on the apron and miss it, so I just slowed down a little bit and (Montoya) ran over the back of us," Kenseth said after finishing two laps down in 15th. "I could do that same thing 300 times and be in it 300 times. It was just one of those odd ones where there's just nothing you can do to miss it. Just the wrong place at the wrong time."
It was a costly accident for a No. 20 car that had been the class of the field until an ill-timed caution on a green-flag pit cycle mired Kenseth at the back of the lead lap. He led 112 laps, including 95 out of 96 circuits at one point, and owned a lead over the field of nearly eight seconds. Johnson never led the race, but the six-time Charlotte winner was lurking as one contender after another fell victim to attrition in NASCAR's longest event.
Johnson and Kenseth were ninth and 10th, respectively, when the No. 48 car suddenly broke loose as part of an accident that ultimately involved five vehicles. "The 56 was sitting on my quarterpanel," Johnson said, referring to the car of Martin Truex Jr. It was part of a challenging night for the five-time series champion, who lost a lap early when his team had to change a battery, but got it back and was working his way back into the top 10 when the car went sideways.
"We were like a fifth-place car, somewhere in that area. Maybe third through seventh place most of the night," said Johnson, who wound up five laps down in 22nd. "We got pulled around in Turns 3 and 4 and spun. That really affected our finish from that point. But we did have some issues with the charging system of the car with batteries dying and things like that throughout the race, which added more excitement for us. It was a long night with a lot of issues and unfortunately we got sucked around there in Turn 3 and did some damage to the car."
Such events are no surprise in a long day-to-night race that's all about keeping the vehicle intact until the end. But Kenseth's undoing had its roots in more mundane matters -- a piece of debris that led NASCAR to issue a caution on lap 303, two circuits after the No. 20 car had given up second place to pit under green. The caution trapped Kenseth a lap down, and although he was able to use the wave-around to get back on the lead lap, he was still stuck at the end of the line.
In the car, Kenseth was as incensed as his Wisconsin temperament would allow. "That is a bunch of crap," he told crew chief Jason Ratcliff over the radio. "It's a piece of tire on the apron. ? A little teeny piece of rubber as big as your hand."
Afterward, he was his usual, more even-keeled self. "I saw it before we pitted," Kenseth said of the debris. "In hindsight, I probably should have mentioned it to Jason, but it sat there for three or four laps. I just didn't think they'd throw a caution for it, and then the lap after we pitted they threw a caution for it, so it's just the way it works every once and a while. We had a lot of good things happen tonight, a lot of things to build on."
The debris caution was the beginning of a chain of events that included Kenseth restarting at the rear of the lead lap and having to work his way through the field -- which meant being in testing, often three-wide traffic in a race marred by several cautions over its latter stages. Kenseth's car seemed one of the few that could challenge Kasey Kahne, who led 161 laps before he was undone by late restarts that helped Kevin Harvick score his second victory of the season.
"I think you have to keep it in perspective," Kenseth said. "I think you have to be careful not to dwell on the negatives. You've got to really focus on the positives. There is so much that's going right with this race team right now. That's just the way things go once in a while. Things are going to happen. We got in a bad spot. That caution was ill-timed for us. You're going to have that now and then."
Even so, Kenseth has had a lot of it, even for a team with multiple victories and a solid third-place standing in points. Sunday was far from the first race in which the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has had a car capable of winning, only to see circumstances intervene -- the Daytona 500, Richmond, and Talladega spring immediately to mind. Charlotte now joins the list. A few things break differently, and Kenseth likely has four or five race wins now rather than three.
He doesn't disagree -- but he's unlikely to lose any sleep over it, either.
"Yeah, I mean, if the cards would have fallen right," Kenseth said. "? I feel like that, and that's a great feeling to have. I'm very thankful for the three that we have. But certainly we had a car tonight that I thought was one of the only one or two cars that could have run with Kasey at the time. Now, certainly cars get better throughout the night and things change. But we had things going our way when they stopped going our way. So we'll just stay with the same approach and if we keep running like that, you'll have things happen, but I think we'll get more wins."
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