Strong restart gives McMurray victory at Charlotte
CONCORD, N.C. -- Bring on Martinsville.
Jamie McMurray cleared Kyle Busch off Turn 2 after a restart on Lap 314 and pulled away from Busch to win Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, site of McMurray's first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory in 2002.
Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup leader Jimmie Johnson and second-place Denny Hamlin, however, both found trouble but rallied to finish third and fourth, respectively, to set up a showdown Oct. 24 at Martinsville, a short track the two drivers have dominated the past four years.
Together, Johnson and Hamlin have won the past eight races at the .526-mile speedway, Hamlin the last two. Hamlin enters the sixth race in the Chase 41 points behind the four-time defending series champion.
McMurray won for the third time this season, the second time at Charlotte and the sixth time in his career, completing unfinished business from the Coca-Cola 600 in May, when he ran second to Kurt Busch.
Greg Biffle finished fifth, and Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, David Reutimann and David Ragan completed the top 10.
"You just drive your heart out, and if you have the car, then you are able to make those passes, and if you don't, you don't make the passes," said McMurray, who earlier this season won the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400. "We had a better car than Kyle at the end. He was better at certain stages during the race but at the end of the race, we had the best car."
McMurray finished 1.866 seconds ahead of Busch, who led 165 of the 334 laps. McMurray led 44 laps.
Fighting a loose handling condition, Johnson looped his No. 48 Chevrolet off Turn 4 on Lap 34. On Lap 38, he restarted 37th but gradually moved to the front. Ultimately, Johnson regained track position when he stayed out under caution on Lap 128--while most of the lead-lap cars came to the pits.
Johnson restarted fifth on Lap 132 and worked his way up to third during a long cycle of green-flag pit stops that ended on Lap 179. A caution for Marcos Ambrose's spin off Turn 4 put all the lead-lap cars back on the same pit sequence and solidified Johnson's position in the top five.
Johnson relishes the prospect of racing Hamlin head-to-head over the next five races.
"Martinsville is such a fun racetrack," Johnson said. "He's good at Martinsville, (and) we are. Talladega is a crapshoot. Texas, I think he finished first there and I was second in the spring.
"Go to Phoenix--it's a great track for both of us. Go to Homestead, I think he won there last year. We ran really strong all night long and then came home (fifth).
"So I think both teams are going to have speed, and I think it's going to boil down to mistakes at this point. Those guys are doing a great job, solid on pit road, solid on equipment, and so on. I think it's going to boil down to mistakes."
Hamlin dodged a Lap 2 wreck but brought his No. 11 Toyota to the pits with flat-spotted tires. Like Johnson, Hamlin restarted from the back of the field and patiently worked his way forward.
"It was a battle," Hamlin said. "We were stuck from like third to fifth all day and just couldn't get quite right. There was some stuff we put in our car that we just needed to fine-tune a little bit--we didn't have enough time to work on it during practice.
"But I think we have a good direction from here on out. We kept (Johnson) in our sights, but that's all we could do. We were a little bit off today, but it's important that we get solid top-five finishes like this."
Chase driver Kurt Busch wasn't as fortunate as Johnson or Hamlin. Busch brought out the second caution on Lap 23 when he spun and grazed the wall in Turn 4. From that point on, the No. 2 Dodge was never right. On Lap 193, Johnson passed the Blue Deuce to bury Busch two laps down. Busch finished 30th.
Polesitter Jeff Gordon likewise had his share of trouble. On Lap 191, one of Gordon's batteries failed, and he lost a lap while switching to a second battery. Gordon got a free pass back to the lead lap after caution flew for Ambrose's spin, but the No. 24 Chevy struggled the rest of the way.
A subsequent pit-road speeding penalty dropped Gordon to 23rd at the finish and left him to 156 points behind Johnson.
Tony Stewart, last Sunday's winner in California, sustained damage on Lap 2 when he checked up in Turn 4 after Ryan Newman, his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, spun in Turn 3. David Gilliland's Ford nosed into the rear of Stewart's Chevrolet, and Stewart fought the handling of his car the rest of the night.
Stewart came home 21st and lost touch with the championship battle. He and Kyle Busch are tied for fifth in the standings, 177 points behind Johnson.