Friday, October 14, 2011

Charlotte Bank of America 500 Preview

By Micah Roberts

Rear-view mirror full of No. 48 can be pretty intimidating
Carl Edwards leads Kevin Harvick by 1-point in NASCAR Chase for the Championship with six races to go, but only 4-points behind in their rear view mirror is defending five-time champion Jimmie Johnson following his win at Kansas Sunday.

Drivers used to say it was more nerve rattling having the late Dale Earnhardt in their rear view mirror during a race while leading than it was trying to catch him. The same could be said for Johnson with all his credentials and trophy’s dangling as the drivers up front try to concentrate on each race knowing that ‘five-time‘ is closing fast.

We may say that experience in the Chase doesn’t account for much because it’s just NASCAR and everything is dependant on the car, unlike football or other sports where experience really matters in the playoffs. But if we just look at the history of the Chase, there has been no one to consistently compete with Johnson. No one knows how to react or counter with Johnson’s excellence.

What we have seen is quite a few drivers wilt when given the opportunity to take him down in the defining moments.

His win Sunday gave him 20 Chase wins in 74 starts and it was his 55th overall tying him with Rusty Wallace for eighth on the all-time Cup win list.

Just think about it, he’s only been in the Cup series since 2002 and he’s never finished a season worse than fifth. Where's the growing pains of a young driver? It's like he just morphed as a robot and began winning. During the Chase era, beginning in 2004, only Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart can say they have beaten Johnson. None of these new ’Young Guns‘ knows what it takes to topple the giant.

This week's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile track won’t get easier for any of the other competitors considering Johnson’s dominance there over the years. He’s a six-time winner on the track in 19 starts that includes two other runner-up finishes and two third-places. His last win came in 2009, but based on the way his team had his car set for Kansas last week, he should be considered one of the strongest contenders to win.

We haven’t seen Johnson be his typical dominant self in the 1.5-mile tracks this season until Sunday, and it’s definitely not surprising that it happened during the Chase.

“I think we’re going to be a threat (at Charlotte Motor Speedway)," said Johnson ealier this week. "When I look back to Chicago, Kentucky, and Kansas obviously, our 1.5-mile stuff has been coming along pretty good over the last two or three months. So I feel good about it. Charlotte, with that asphalt that’s down, it is its own environment and it’s really tough to get your car right from the start of the race to the end of the race."

Edwards had a hard fought fifth-place finish last week at Kansas after struggling most of the day. It’s that type of racing on a bad day that can help slay the beast of Jimmie Johnson down the stretch and it’s what has kept him on top for now.

His Charlotte resume is quite impressive with seven top-10 finishes in 13 starts, but his only win on the track remains his non-points all-star win from this season. He’s considered a strong candidate to win on the basis of his win on the sister track of Las Vegas, his only win of the season.

Edwards looking for his first points win at Charlotte (Getty)
“Charlotte has been a little difficult for us," said Edwards. "We have been very hit and miss there. I do feel like our run in the All-Star race and 600 earlier this year will be something we can build on. We have a baseline strategy with the setup and we will go use that and hopefully it will work out better. I’m very grateful to be going into Charlotte as the points leader after our run in Kansas last weekend.”

Matt Kenseth also has to be considered a contender because of the car he's driving. He brought his winning Texas chassis which should translate well at Charlotte this week. Kenseth has one Charlotte win which came during his rookie year in 2000.

Harvick captured his first career win at Charlotte in May after Dale Earnhardt Jr ran out of fuel on the last lap. It was his only top-5 finish ever on the track. However, we’ve seen Harvick run well enough on these type of tracks this season to make him a contender once again this week.

“From a driver’s standpoint, it’s just never been a race track where I’ve had a great feel," Harvick said regarding Charlotte. "There’s nothing wrong with the surface, nothing wrong with the shape of the race track or anything like that. It’s just from a performance standpoint we just don’t have the stats that need to be there like we do at a lot of other places. Over the last couple of years it’s definitely gotten a lot better for us. We won a race there at the beginning of the year and after we won there we feel like we can win anywhere.”

Gordon can use Atlanta win well Saturday
Kyle Busch has kind of been quiet during this Chase run and currently sits 20-points back. If there’s a track that can get him going, it will be Charlotte. Up until this years race, Busch had an amazing run of finishing eighth or better in seven straight races.

The race we can probably take the most input from for this week in September race at the sister track of Atlanta just because it was the most recent of the similar tracks run. Jeff Gordon won that race in dominant fashion with Johnson and Stewart in tow.

“We’re definitely looking to win races now,” said Gordon, who is 10th in the standings – 47 points out of the lead – after an engine issue at Kansas relegated him to a 34th-place finish. “We aren’t out of the championship discussion, but a lot is out of our control.

“Our focus now is on leading as many laps as we can and winning as many races as we possibly can. Then we’ll see where we stand after a few more races.”

Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)
2) #24 Jeff Gordon (8/1)
3) #99 Carl Edwards (7/1)
4) #14 Tony Stewart (10/1)
5) #18 Kyle Busch (9/1)

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