“Panicking has never helped anything,” Kenseth said. “I feel like we’re gaining on it. We’ve just been a little bit off all year.”
Johnson wasn’t off when it mattered. His late drive to the front was still far from the race’s only drama.
Kurt Busch attempted to become the first driver since Tony Stewart in 2001 to complete every lap of the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600, which put him in the spotlight on Sunday.
Busch finished sixth in his first IndyCar race, but engine woes relegated him to a 40th-place finish at Charlotte, 129 laps short of his 1,100-mile goal.
“We had a good car,” Busch said. “We’ve just had a monkey on our back running NASCAR this year. That kind of motor failure symbolizes some of the struggles we’ve had.
“Today was a memory I’ll have forever. I loved racing in Indy in front of all the Indiana natives. It was a grand stage to stand on and represent NASCAR.”
Busch wasn’t the only popular driver to have an up-and-down weekend.
Gordon, the series points leader, drove all 600 miles despite enduring back spasms that caused him to miss a practice session on Saturday.
Nationwide Series points leader Regan Smith was on standby in case Gordon couldn’t finish the race, but Smith’s services weren’t needed.
“Having five days to rest and do ice and different treatments (helps), but I didn’t have that on my side this weekend,” Gordon said. “Just getting through this race was one of the toughest ones to get through, but I think we should be good next week.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. led 13 laps and spent much of the night in the top five beside fellow Hendrick drivers Gordon and Johnson. Mechanical problems, however, forced Earnhardt to make two unscheduled pit stops. The Daytona 500 winner in February battled back to finish 19th.
Earnhardt remained upbeat after the race.
“We’ve been pretty good all year,” Earnhardt said. “I think we’ve had good speed all year. We were as good (Sunday) as we were at Kansas (where Earnhardt finished fifth).”
Danica Patrick was the second Stewart-Haas Racing driver, along with Busch, to encounter engine issues. She finished 39th after qualifying fourth.
Pit-stop problems kept Harvick, Patrick and Busch’s teammate, from mounting a challenge in the final laps. He closed Johnson’s gap to 1.2 seconds at the finish despite losing valuable track position in the final 100 miles because of a loose wheel.
Harvick fell one lap down after an unscheduled pit stop and spent the rest of the night playing catch-up while Johnson and Kenseth traded the lead.
“I look at it as we let (Johnson’s team) slip one in front of us by shooting ourselves in the foot,” Harvick said.
“You knew that was going to come. They’ve won championships and done a great job through the years. They were solid all weekend, didn’t make any mistakes, kept themselves up front all night and won the race.”