AP Auto Racing Writer
CONCORD, N.C. — It was a sloppy race at Charlotte Motor Speedway no matter how you slice it. As Joey Logano drove away from the field to earn an important Chase for the Sprint Cup championship victory, three other NASCAR stars suffered huge hits in their push through the playoffs.
Matt Kenseth is last in the Chase standings after a brutal race Sunday at Charlotte. The pole-sitter led 72 laps early then hit the wall, and hit the wall again, and maybe hit the wall even once more.
Such a promising day ended in a 42nd-place finish and Kenseth, one of four title contenders for Joe Gibbs Racing, is in serious trouble in this Chase.
So is JGR teammate Kyle Busch, who is 10th in the 12-driver Chase field after his own messy day.
Busch was in third and clearly a contender when a bizarre pit road accident set in motion the rest of his lousy race. He pretended to head to pit road under caution only to change his mind and try to pull back onto the track.
Only Kyle Larson was frantically trying to make a last-second dive onto pit road from second-place, and the two cars collided. Busch’s shot at the win was gone, but he still had a decent car.
Until, that is, he hit the wall while trying to save his race. Busch wound up 20th and blamed his second incident on NASCAR not cleaning oil off the track.
An aggravated Busch noted after the race that passing was next to impossible on Charlotte’s 1.5-mile speedway and the racing was relegated to basically one lane. His main beef was with NASCAR: When Busch tried to force something at the top of the track — an effort “to make anything happen” — he found himself in the wall after hitting what he believed was an oil slick from another driver’s car.
“So thanks to NASCAR for cleaning that (oil) up,” Busch said.
Busch is 10th in the standings as the Chase shifts to Kansas Speedway, one of his worst tracks. His championship hopes have been dashed at Kansas in years past, and last year he targeted the track as a place he must perform. Busch did, only to be eliminated from the Chase the next week in a crash at Talladega.
All 12 Chase drivers went into this second round dreading the daunting three-race stretch that ends Oct. 25 at Talladega, a track where anything can happen and usually does. None of them want their fate decided by a multi-car accident, and because of the Charlotte race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is also in danger right now.
Earnhardt’s issues began when he had early-race contact with Carl Edwards as neither driver would give up position on the track. It put Earnhardt in a hole and he believed he ran through the same oil patch that Busch hit when he later slid into the wall.
“I know I hit oil. I hit it. I promise,” Earnhardt said. “I’ll argue with (NASCAR) all day long because I know I’m right.”
Earnhardt is 11th in the standings after Charlotte.
Now NASCAR has three of its biggest stars at the bottom of the Chase field in what’s expected to be the most difficult stretch of the playoffs. That’s a good thing, in a sense, considering the trials and tribulations from that trio were among the very few highlights in a lackluster Chase race.
Logano was more or less unchallenged as he shrugged off Kevin Harvick for the win. Logano led 227 of the 334 laps and Harvick, who finished second, never got near him.
Harvick, so dominant in the first round of the Chase, didn’t lead a single lap at Charlotte and had nothing to challenge Logano.
It made for an anti-climactic day in which the only drama surrounded the drivers who dropped to the bottom of the Chase standings. That could make for a tough final six weeks of the season if problematic days for championship drivers is the only reason to watch.