Over the years there have been many NASCAR Sprint Cup races in which the outcome seems so obvious fans may make a quick dash to the parking lot to beat the traffic – or many others at home may switch television stations.
The thinking is simple: This race is over. The driver who is in the lead has been there for most of the event and, with laps dwindling, he isn’t likely to be overtaken.
But then, shockingly and suddenly, he is. And when the checkered flag falls, he’s well behind the improbable winner.
This, too, has happened many times in NASCAR over the years and it occurred again in the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.
Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson so dominated the race that virtually no one thought he would, or could, lose. He led 182 of the race’s 267 laps – sometimes by a margin of two to three seconds.
But his unlikely downfall came on the restart from the race’s ninth caution period.
Brian Vickers slammed the wall to force the yellow flag. Johnson, the leader, came into the pits for just two tires. It was a logical move. Such tire strategy had kept him in the lead all day.
But not this time. Matt Kenseth pitted for gas only. He was going to attempt to finish the race on worn tires. The call was made by his crew chief, Jason Ratcliff.
It seemed to be a desperation move. While Kenseth would indeed be the leader when the race restarted, what chance did he stand against rivals with fresher tires?
The race restarted on lap 248 and before the cars could reach the first turn, Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet spun out of control.
It was an unbelievable turn of events. But, apparently, Johnson could not keep pace with Kenseth. In fact, he accused the Joe Gibbs Racing driver of deliberately slowing down and causing a backup.
But NASCAR rules decree the race leader – in this case Kenseth – controls the restart. He leads the field and sets the pace, period.
So Kenseth powered into the lead as the 10th caution period restarted on lap 250.
That his tires were far more worn than anyone else’s did not matter. Ratcliff’s strategy worked. It’s almost certain he figured out that in today’s NASCAR, clean air means more than new tires.
Kenseth went on to win for the first time at Kentucky – which has had three different winners in its first three Sprint Cup events – and for the fourth time this season, more than any other driver.
“I didn’t roll the dice, Jason did,” Kenseth said. “I thought he was slightly crazy when that happened.
“I didn’t think there was any way that we were going to hold on for that win. He made the right call at the right time and those guys got it done.”
As for the final restart Kenseth professed he did only what he thought he should. He maintained he didn’t deliberately do anything to gain an advantage.
“I don’t know, I didn’t see the last restart except for where I was at,” Kenseth said. “I don’t know what happened to him. Jimmie definitely had the best car all day. He was class of the field.
“I got through some gears there pretty good and was able to clear him there in turns one and two. I’m not sure what happened behind me.”
Restarts, especially late in a race, have proven to be Johnson’s Achilles Heel this season. Kentucky was not the first race in which he handed over certain victory to someone else because of miscalculation or errant fortune.
But at Kentucky, Johnson came roaring back from his mishap. After a four-tire change he charged from 25
to ninth over the final 17 laps.
“I don’t know,” Johnson said. “We were kind of in an awkward situation in that restart there.
“And then we were like three and four wide going in the corner, then something happened with the air and just kind of turned me around.
“Unfortunate, but at least we rallied back for a good finish. Kenseth broke the pace car speed, which you aren’t supposed to, but, they aren’t calling guys on that – so I need to start trying that in the future.”
It’s fairly certain NASCAR does not agree with Johnson’s assessment.
However, Johnson’s late-race rebound helped keep him in first place in points, 38 ahead of Carl Edwards.
Kenseth, meanwhile, remains in fifth place, 82 out of first – but his four wins in his first year with Gibbs virtually assure him a place in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
“I dreamed about this kind of season but I probably didn’t imagine that would be realistic,” Kenseth said. “Like I said, it’s been incredible.
We’ve had some moments that tested us this season already and obviously it’s great to have the four wins.
“Hopefully, we can keep it rolling. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Past Kentucky winner Brad Keselowski was involved in a major wreck early that ultimately dropped him to a 33-place finish.
The defending Cup champion fell from ninth to 13 in points, presently out of the Chase and without a victory this season.
While Johnson remains in control of the championship battle so far, given the evidence at Kentucky and elsewhere this season, some have reached this conclusion:
Perhaps the only thing that keeps Johnson from a sixth title is, well, Johnson himself.