CONCORD, N.C. – When the Bank of America 500 was finally over Saturday night – after all the twisted sheet metal, cranky transmissions, pit stops, corn dogs, accidental green flags and shivering in the October chill – the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship had reached its midpoint and Jeff Burton was five races from completing a remarkable surprise.
But the unforgiving nature of the 10-race chase played out like a romance novel Saturday night when Kasey Kahne played the part of Jimmie Johnson by winning again at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
Over the next five weeks, the chase will run through Martinsville, Va., Atlanta, Fort Worth, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami and it’s still possible that Dale Earnhardt Jr. Matt Kenseth or Kevin Harvick can steal the title that’s teasing Burton right now.
They’ll need some help from Burton, whose golden touch these days allowed him to overcome stalling his car late in the race and still finish third.
If Saturday night showed anything between the gas stops necessitated by the 14-gallon fuel tank, it’s how suddenly things can change – at least to everyone but Burton.
Mark Martin had the points lead for a moment Saturday only to have his heart broken – and he’s lucky that’s all.
Martin got clipped by J.J. Yeley coming out of the fourth turn and took a 180 mph ride into the soft wall along the front straight. Almost miraculously, Martin popped out of what was left of his ride, stood on his door and waved to the crowd, thankful his molars were still in his head.
It was a harsh night for other championship contenders. They were all fortunate not to get eaten by the fire-snorting, car-chewing mechanical monster that roamed the infield during another subtle prerace show.
Jeff Gordon, who hasn’t been able to catch a good break, was cruising toward a top-five finish when his car blew up in the closing laps, assuring him that this isn’t his year.
Denny Hamlin, fifth in points when the sun went down, didn’t make it a full lap before being turned backward in the middle of traffic.
After running into the wall and cluttering the front straightaway with more cars than a mall parking lot at Christmas, Hamlin limped into the garage with a pipe dragging behind his black car, looking like it was a piece of toilet paper stuck on his shoe.
A few moments later, NASCAR nearly had its first-ever race with cars and trucks on the track together when it somehow dropped the green flag on a restart while three safety trucks were rolling out of Turn 2.
Fortunately, somebody noticed in time to slow the cars down before they ran up on the boys who’d been spreading quick-dry on the track.
That would have been a real mess.