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Final laps make for enjoyable battle at Charlotte Motor Speedway

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
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JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

CONCORD The Charlotte Motor Speedway had already had its yearly quota of weirdness.

What it got on Saturday night was much more true to form, with most of the big guns finishing in the top 10, and Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne having a very entertaining battle over the final few laps for the victory.

Keselowski ultimately won, a fine victory for the 2012 champion who didn’t even make this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. It was Keselowski’s first win of 2013 and helped erase some of the bad luck that had plagued him for much of this season.

As for the overall points race, this changed very little. No one will look back at this night in five weeks at the end of the 10-race Chase and go, “Wow, Charlotte changed everything!”

Matt Kenseth finished third to keep his small overall lead. Jimmie Johnson was fourth to stay close behind – he’s now four points back after entering the night three back. Johnson was disappointed, though, he didn’t gain on Kenseth after Johnson had the best car for much of the night. And Kevin Harvick was sixth to remain third in overall points.

In May, at the track’s other big Sprint Cup points event (the Coca-Cola 600), a black nylon rope holding a Fox Sports TV camera fell from the sky. It flailed around wildly, injuring 10 fans, damaging several racecars and causing a race delay of 27 minutes. It was downright bizarre.

Nothing like that occurred this time around on a pleasant October evening. Instead, the Bank of America 500 went off more or less like you might expect. Kenseth came into the race leading the points race but started 20th with a poor qualifying effort and was complaining about his car early. But his crew worked on it and Kenseth patiently worked his way up to a top-3 finish, ensuring that he will go into the second half of the Chase with the lead.

“Tonight I thought the 48 probably had us beat,” Kenseth would say later, but ultimately Johnson’s No.48 Chevy did not.

Johnson, who once won five of six races at CMS in a ridiculously good stretch from 2003-2005, had won only once in his past 15 points races at the track. What looked like another win got snatched away late – partly by that “debris” caution flag, partly because of a decision to take four tires instead of two after the final caution and partly because of a bad restart. Johnson went from first to third to seventh in a matter of minutes, ending up getting back to fourth but leaving the track unfulfilled.

This 500-mile evening – about the distance from Charlotte to Louisville, Ky. – was mostly ruled by Hendrick Motorsports cars. At one point, the four Hendrick cars were 1-2-3-4 on the track, and it’s remarkable in a way that none of them won. Dale Earnhardt Jr. led for 19 laps, but then dropped back to an ultimate finish of 15th.

After a long green-flag run Johnson dominated, the late caution bunched the cars up for the final 27 laps and allowed Keselowski to get near the front. He worked on Kahne beautifully in the final 15 laps before eventually overtaking him in what was the best racing of the night.

“Brad ran a really smart race,” Kahne said. “We fought until the end. … He had four (new) tires and I had two, and he just got by me.”

Keselowski praised Kahne, saying he could race Kahne hard without having him “freak out,” unlike some other drivers. “It was just a never-give-up night,” Keselowski said in Victory Lane.

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