Five things we learned in Charlotte at NASCAR's longest race
Rick Hendrick held a party last week in Charlotte to celebrate his organization's recent 200th-career NASCAR Cup Series victory. Most of the 15 drivers who had taken Hendrick Motorsports to Victory Lane over the years were in attendance and they were all honored by name during the event, from champions such as Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson to one-hit wonders such as Casey Mears and Jerry Nadeau.
Kasey Kahne, the newest member of Hendrick's stable of driver, was also at the party. He was introduced later, almost as an afterthought. Because while Kahne might be considered one of the bright young stars in the sport, he had yet to win a race for Hendrick Motorsports. So for that one night, at least, Kahne had not accomplished as much as Mears and Nadeau.
It took one more race for Kahne to change all that and join the list of winning drivers for Hendrick Motorsports. Kahne pulled away late to win Sunday night's running of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was victory No. 201 for Hendrick Motorsports and the first for Kahne as a member of that celebrated organization.
"It's unbelievable to drive for Hendrick Motorsports and be a part of everything they do there," said Kahne, who is now up to 15th in the point standings after being 31st two months ago. "I have the greatest teammates to work with, which is something I really looked forward to in coming to Hendrick Motorsports. To be able to learn from Jimmie and Jeff and Dale and see how they do things. And Chad Knaus and all the crew chiefs. They're all awesome guys. To learn from those guys and work with them is all I really want to do.
"It's like a dream come true. You can't ask for anything better in auto racing. I'm living it up right now."
Here are five things we learned from Charlotte:
Nobody really considered Greg Biffle to be a serious championship contender before this season began. A top-10 driver, maybe, but not the best. And even after Biffle took over the points lead three weeks into the season, most of the focus seemed to be on Tony Stewart's hot start and Jeff Gordon's bad luck and Jimmie Johnson's methodical march back up the standings following his Daytona disaster. Surely, it was only a matter of time before The Biff relinquished the top spot, a moment that seemed to be close at hand after he finished outside the top-10 in two of the past three races and his lead dwindled from 19 points down to only two.
Well, Biffle showed Sunday night that he just might hold onto the points lead for awhile. He had the dominant car for much of the race and continued to drive hard even after his car became loose once the sun set and the track cooled. Biffle led 204 of the 400 laps (he has now led more laps this season than he did all of last year) and finished fourth, increasing his lead in the standings to 10 points over second-place Matt Kenseth.
"When it cooled down and the speeds picked up, our car was down a little harder on the nose and it would just slide the front end up the track," Biffle said. "Kasey got good as the night fell and we seemed to struggle a little bit. I was driving for all I was worth."
Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 team won the Pit Crew Challenge competition on May 17. Their bragging rights lasted all of ten days, until Johnson nearly dragged the team's gas man down pit road.
The problem occurred on Johnson's final pit stop. After the right-side tires were changed, one of the tire changers stumbled as he ran in front of the car back toward the pit wall, dropping the tire in the process. That looked awkward, but it did not affect Johnson's ability to leave his pit. The primary issue was that as soon as the car came off the jack, Johnson hit the accelerator while the gas man was still filling the tank. The gas man stumbled alongside the car for about a half-dozen steps before falling. Johnson slammed on the brakes, and then accelerated again. Television commentator Darrell Waltrip proclaimed, "I don't think I've ever seen a pit stop quite that messed up."
The botched stop dropped Johnson out of the top 10, and instead of challenging for the victory at the end, he finished 11th. While the incident no doubt sent crew chief Chad Knaus into a rage (especially since the crew made another mistake earlier in the race) Johnson was diplomatic about the situation afterward.
"We had a couple of mistakes on pit road. The one late took us out of a chance for a top three (finish)," Johnson said. "It happens. Last week (during the All-Star race) things couldn't have gone any better. At Darlington (two weeks ago) they were amazing. This week we had a few little issues.
"These guys will work their tails off this week and make sure that we get those things corrected. Some weeks it goes your way other weeks it doesn't. Late in the race you just can't recover (from mistakes). That's lethal for your chances at a good finish. Your last pit stop has to be mistake free."
Midway through the race, Brad Keselowski pulled out of his pit during a green-flag stop and clipped the left rear of Tony Stewart's car as Stewart was attempting to enter his pit. Stewart's car spun 180 degrees, and he briefly had to go the wrong way down pit road in order to get turned around and enter his stall. It was part of a frustrating night for Stewart that saw the defending series champion finish 25th.
As Stewart was whipping his car around, his in-car camera showed him peering wide-eyed out of his helmet, seemingly seething in anger. It would not be difficult to imagine Stewart returning to the track in such a situation and seeking retribution. It certainly wasn't difficult for Keselowski to imagine such a scenario. He quickly got on the radio with his team and asked for them to explain to Stewart that he had not seen his car and the contact was accidental.
When Keselowski was told to "calm down and get your head back in the game," Keselowski replied, "My head is in the game, if you'll just listen to me. ... I'm worried about this 14 (Stewart) when he stuffs us into the fence because he doesn't know what the hell happened."
Maybe Stewart was told, because he never came close to making contact with Keselowski the rest of the race. And with the fence avoided, Keselowski finished fifth.
With 25 laps to go, Denny Hamlin was closing hard on Kahne and trailed him by only about a half-second. But from that point on Kahne pulled steadily away and eventually won by 4.3 seconds. Hamlin said there was nothing he could do at the end to catch Kahne.
"I was driving with my eyes out and my hair on fire for 20 laps trying to catch him. He just had a superior car tonight," Hamlin said. "I just used all my tires up trying to get to him. I know my guys were probably on top of the (pit) box seeing me catch him, catch him and catch him, but I just used up everything I had when I got to him. I just didn't have quite enough. There's nothing we did wrong. We just got beat by a better car today."
Realistically, this is nothing but a learning year for Danica Patrick. Nobody expects her to win a race right away in cars she has barely driven and at tracks she has never seen. But her performance Sunday night at Charlotte and two weeks earlier at Darlington Raceway indicate that she won't be posting any top 10s in her limited Sprint Cup schedule this season. In fact, it appears she probably needs another two or three years of experience before having any chance of being competitive on the Cup level.
This is not a criticism of Patrick. It simply is a fact about the difficultly facing any inexperienced driver that tries to make it in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. Patrick is talented enough that she can run in the drafting packs at the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega and stay up near the front. But when she has to turn a lap on her own -- finding the right line and gaining a feel of precisely when to accelerate and brake -- she is several tenths of a second slower per lap than her more experienced peers. Those tenths steadily add up throughout the race, and by the time the checkered flag falls she is several laps off the pace (five at Charlotte and six at Darlington).
If the only true goals for Patrick this season are for her to gain seat time, stay out of trouble and learn how to handle the heavier stock cars, then she is succeeding. Patrick made it to the end of the race at both Charlotte and Darlington, which is an accomplishment. This year, at least, that is probably the most anybody should expect from her.