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Rewind: It's a gray area

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, Nov. 04, 2012

OBSERVATIONS

It's an often repeated and supposedly succinct NASCAR rule: The second-place car cannot beat the first-place car to the line on restarts. On the final restart with two laps remaining, Jimmie Johnson, then second, crossed the line ahead of leader Brad Keselowski. It may have been a foot or a few inches, but it was obvious on every replay. NASCAR made no call. It has called it on occasion and sometimes not. Rules without effect or randomly enforced are no rules at all. They are suggestions with possible consequences. If even your supposedly clear rules are open to vast interpretation, that doesn't help fans believe there is an even playing field.

If it wasn't clear before Sunday's race, it's certainly clear now. This year's Chase will be decided between Johnson and Keselowski unless one decides not to show up at the final two races. So far, it's shaping up to be another duel to the finish much like last year's battle between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards.

In the "you can't make this up" department: During Sunday's prerace show, a sandbag from one of the numerous skydivers performing came loose and struck Kevin Harvick's No. 29 Chevrolet while it sat on the starting grid. The team had to take the car to the garage for repairs to the driver's-side door area.

HOW THE CHASE DRIVERS FARED

No. 1: Jimmie Johnson, 2339 points

Johnson's victory was the 700th for Chevrolet in the Sprint Cup Series. And more than 200 of them have come from Hendrick Motorsports, and most of them from Jeff Gordon and Johnson.

“The only thing I've ever raced throughout my career has been a Chevy,” he said. “They gave me my first opportunity back when I was 15 years old and put me in an off-road stadium truck to help develop the new truck that's coming along, and I've been there ever since.”

No. 2: Brad Keselowski, -7

Keselowski's No. 2 Penske Racing team is well prepared to go toe-to-toe with the much more experienced Johnson and the Hendrick Motorsports organization.

Keselowski once again used some pit strategy to have a shot at the win and ended up second. The only problem? Johnson was first.

No. 3: Clint Bowyer, -36

Realistically, he's the only driver who could still interrupt the Johnson-Keselowski title battle, but it would take some help from one of them. He finished sixth.

“It's fun to be racing for the championship,” Bowyer said. “I'm more proud of where we're at contending for that championship, winning three races our first year together as a group.”

No. 4: Kasey Kahne, -58

While battling with Jeff Gordon, Kahne slammed the wall on Lap 321, bringing out a caution that slowed Keselowski's march.

No. 5: Denny Hamlin, -72

Hamlin struggled most of the race and also picked up some damage from an incident on pit road that just made matters worse. He finished 20th.

No. 6: Jeff Gordon, -72

Late in the race, Gordon moved into second place and looked as if he could challenge for the win. On Lap 270, he was forced to pit under green when he developed a problem with his right-front tire.

No. 7: Martin Truex Jr., -73

It was a sub-par day for Truex, who finished 13th.

No. 8: Matt Kenseth, -80

Shocked may be an understatement for Kenseth considering how his race started. He finished fourth after spending the first half of the race trying to remain on the lead lap.

“We started off way off, but these guys never gave up,” Kenseth said.

No. 9: Greg Biffle, -80

Biffle struggled with getting his No. 16 Ford to his liking but spent most of the race in top 10.

No. 10: Tony Stewart, -83

At one point he was running behind Danica Patrick and was on the verge of being lapped, but rallied for a top-five finish.

No. 11: Kevin Harvick, -101

Harvick's day didn't start well when a sandbag from a skydiver dropped on his car before the race started, which required repairs. He ended up ninth.

No. 12: Dale Earnhardt Jr., -151

Early in the race, Earnhardt looked to be out to lunch on the track. But his No. 88 Chevrolet seemed to come to life when the sun went down and he rallied for a seventh place finish.

3 KEYS TO VICTORY

1. For the second consecutive race, Johnson started from the pole – a great advantage on pit road and in track position.

2. By about Lap 188 of 335 Johnson had already wrapped up the bonus point for leading the most laps – critical in the tight points battle with Keselowski.

3. Taking only two tires on his final pit stop gave Keselowski a strong advantage, but eventually – after three restarts – Johnson's four new tires became the No. 48's advantage.

TURNING POINT

Johnson, then running second, appeared to cross the line ahead of Keselowski – the leader – on the final restart, which typically is against the rules. NASCAR, however, made no call.

THINGS WOULD HAVE BEEN DIFFERENT IF ..

The difference between Johnson's winning and Keselowski's not resulted in an eight-point swing – that's huge in a two-team battle for the title.

NEXT RACE

AdvoCare 500

Where: Phoenix International Raceway, Avondale, Ariz.

When: 3 p.m. Sunday.

TV: ESPN.

Radio: Motor Racing Network.

Last year’s winner: Kasey Kahne.

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