Now that Talladega is in the rearview mirror, all 12 drivers in the Chase for Sprint Cup championship can breathe a sigh of relief.
The Chase "wild card" race at Talladega is done, and now it's time to move on to the "homecoming" event on Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Four of the last six races this season will be contested on 1.5-mile racetracks, beginning with Charlotte. Kansas (Oct. 21), Texas (Nov. 4) and Homestead (Nov. 18) are the others.
After finishing seventh at Talladega, Brad Keselowski increased his points lead from five to 14 over Jimmie Johnson, who finished 17th. Johnson was among those involved in the 25-car crash that occurred on the final lap.
For many years, Johnson had been dominant at Charlotte. The Hendrick Motorsports driver and five-time Sprint Cup Series champion has earned six victories in points-paying races at Charlotte, including four in a row from May 2004 to Oct. 2005. His last win in a points race there came in the 2009 fall event.
Johnson struggled at Charlotte in 2011. He finished 28th in the Coca-Cola 600. In last year's Chase race there, his chance of winning a record-extending sixth straight series title essentially came to an end when he crashed hard into the outside wall in the closing laps and finished 34th. He had kept his title hopes alive when he won the week prior at Kansas.
But Johnson has had better luck at Charlotte this season. He won the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race (non-points). Days before the all-star event, Johnson's No. 48 team claimed the victory in the Sprint Pit Crew Challenge. He concluded the spring festivities at Charlotte with an 11th-place run in the 600.
"I love that track," Johnson said. "We won the all-star race and ran very well in the 600, so I feel like we'll be there and be a threat, and I need to be at this time of the year. We need to be on top of things."
Martinsville, a 0.526-mile short track, is scheduled for Oct. 28, while Phoenix, a flat one-mile oval, is slated for Nov. 11. Johnson has performed very well at those two tracks in the past.
"I love the races in the Chase," he said. "They are very good tracks for us. When I look down the lineup, I get very fired up for all of them. Martinsville isn't too far away. At Texas, we were really strong in the spring there. Phoenix is good. Homestead has been good to us. So I feel like we've got a lot of great racetracks coming up."
Two of Keselowski's five victories this season have come on the mile and a halfs. The Penske Racing driver won the June 30 race at Kentucky and the first Chase event on Sept. 16 at Chicagoland.
"Our record this year on the intermediate tracks is very solid," Keselowski said. "With 1.5-mile tracks making up the majority of the rest of the Chase schedule, I'm pretty happy that we were able to come out of Talladega with a nice lead, because I think we are set up for a good second half to the Chase."
Keselowski has only one top-10 finish in six races at Charlotte. He placed fifth there earlier this year. Keselowski does have two Nationwide Series victories at this track -- Oct. 2010 and May 2012.
Heading to Charlotte, Denny Hamlin is 23 points behind Keselowski, while Kasey Kahne trails by 36, Clint Bowyer 40 and Jeff Gordon 42.
Seventh through 12th in the Chase rankings are: Tony Stewart (-46), Martin Truex Jr. (-48), Greg Biffle (-49), Kevin Harvick (-49), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-51) and Matt Kenseth (-62).
Earnhardt Jr. will not compete at Charlotte and Kansas after being diagnosed with a concussion following the Talladega race. He was involved in the last- lap crash. Regan Smith will substitute for Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for both of those races.
Kenseth, who is in his last year with Roush Fenway Racing, bounced back in the Chase by winning at Talladega. He had finished 14th, 18th and 35th in the first three postseason races.
"We had a really rough few weeks in the Chase, with parts breaking and following off and not getting good finishes and not running good, and everybody was getting close to being at each other's throats and things like that," Kenseth said. "So it's important for me to try to keep that whole unit as a cohesive front-running championship-contending unit. So I'm hoping in the next six weeks we can continue this momentum, hoping we can get another win or two and finish as high as we can in the points and end this thing on a high note."
Kenseth won last year's Chase race at Charlotte. He passed Kyle Busch for the lead with 25 laps remaining and then held off Busch after a restart with a dozen laps left to win there for the first time since his rookie season in 2000.
Before he heads to Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2013 season, Kenseth is hoping his No. 17 Roush Fenway team will end the year on a high note.
"They've been working really hard, especially on our stuff for Charlotte and our intermediate stuff," he said. "So I think everybody at Roush Fenway was disappointed in our performance at Atlanta, Chicago, and really even Dover, for that matter.
"They've been really on it. They've been working really, really hard to try to get our stuff better. And I'm really looking forward to getting on the track and seeing the progress that we made, and hopefully being competitive this weekend."
Forty-seven teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Bank of America 500. Kurt Busch will make his first start in the No. 78 Chevrolet for Furniture Row Racing. Smith previously drove that car.
Qualifying for this race is scheduled for Thursday at 7:10 p.m. (ET).
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Saturday, Oct. 13. Race: Bank of America 500. Site: Charlotte Motor Speedway. Track: 1.5-mile oval. Start time: 7:30 p.m.(ET). Laps: 334. Miles: 501. 2011 Winner: Matt Kenseth. Television: ABC. Radio: Performance Racing Network (PRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.