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The Chase was hijacked. And if you ask some, so was Saturday night's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
For just the 16th time in 95 races, a non-Chase qualifier crashed NASCAR's postseason party. Brad Keselowski fell behind early after dragging a jack out of the pits underneath his Ford and pulling it all the way around the track, miraculously suffering minor, mostly cosmetic damage to the car.
After working his way back through the field, a late yellow flag for debris on the racetrack set Keselowski up for a shot at redemption and he seized it, surviving a thrilling late duel with Kasey Kahne and earning his first victory in 38 races.
After leaving Victory Lane, several members of the Miller Lite crew made a point to stop by the team hauler to inspect the same scarred aluminum contraption that they'd cursed on pit road earlier in the night. One went so far as to pat it like the family pet, audibly thanking it for not destroying their race car.
|Brad Keselowski and his crew had a big misstep Saturday night, but it didn't keep them from winning.|
"To win under the circumstances," Keselowski said, "it was a great race."
Keselowski has seemingly been racing "under circumstances" all season long. He is the defending Sprint Cup champion by title only, denied a chance at a repeat when he failed to make the 13-car Chase field, victim of a 26-race regular season packed with a whole lot of rotten luck and more than a little controversy.
Just this weekend, he found himself in the headlines when Chase contender Kyle Busch said he was worried about possible retaliation from Keselowski for a Nationwide Series run-in at Kansas Speedway one week ago "because he's stupid enough to do something."
To Keselowski and his team, the jack dragging, which took place on Lap 87 of the 334-lap race, felt like just another round of bad fortune. At the end of a routine pit stop, the jack hung up under the car and was yanked out of jackman Braxton Bannon's hands.
But, for a night anyway, Keselowski's 2013 luck turned into his 2012 luck. Admitted team owner Roger Penske: "When I saw the jack, I said, 'Here we go again.' But in the end, it ended up being a great night."
The same caution that set the stage for Keselowski's first win also likely took away Jimmie Johnson's shot at his sixth, a victory that also would have given him the points lead over Matt Kenseth. With 27 laps remaining, Johnson was in the lead for the 79th consecutive lap when the night's fourth caution flag was shown for debris on the backstretch. After pit stops, Johnson stumbled through the restart and fell all the way back to seventh.
Ultimately, he finished fourth. That's not a bad night at the office. In fact, Johnson himself said earlier in the weekend that earning a top-5 and "moving on to the next race" would be a successful weekend. But having to look out the windshield and see Kenseth running one spot ahead made the whole situation more difficult to swallow.
"There was a caution that shook things up," Johnson said with a shrug, only slightly masking his frustration before adding that he'd looked for the debris that brought out the night-altering yellow but saw nothing. When asked if he had seen the debris, Kenseth said he hadn't even looked for it.
"I'm not sure what happened in the points," Johnson continued. "But I know it's awfully tight up there right now."
Tight, yes, but also largely unchanged. Johnson entered the race three points behind Kenseth and left trailing by four. The peloton chasing those top two also primarily stayed put.
Front-row starters Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon finished sixth and seventh and remained third and fourth in the standings, respectively, both losing four points to Kenseth but remaining within that crucial buffer of a "race's worth" of points at 25 and 32 back, respectively. It was the same for Kyle Busch, who sits 35 points in arrears after finishing fifth.
"We got a decent finish, but our car was terrible all night," said Harvick. "The restart went our way there at the end and we were able to get a decent finish out of it. We survived."
Survival wasn't the goal at Charlotte, but it will be one week from now.
That's when, finally, the Sprint Cup Series heads to Talladega Superspeedway, where pack-driven, calamity-punctuated, restrictor-plate racing has historically had a massive effect on the Chase standings.
Throughout the weekend in Charlotte, there was as much talk about Talladega as there was the track at hand. Kenseth and Johnson realize that NASCAR's most unpredictable superspeedway might be a chance to finally break up their two-car tandem. The pack behind them knows it might be their last chance to gain any significant ground before the season's four-race homestretch run.
"I don't know if anybody is looking forward to Talladega, but it's part of it," Gordon said in the garage Saturday night as his team packed up its gear. "You've got to go in there with a positive attitude and fight and do your best to try and avoid whatever may occur there, or what's going to occur, and hope you come out with a race car.
"It doesn't even have to be in one piece. It just needs to get across the line with a decent finish."
And hope that it's the other guy who gets jacked up.