BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — Matt Kenseth had old tires, a sputtering gas tank and Kasey Kahne in his rearview mirror in the closing laps of a race for the third time this season.
The result was the same as it was in Las Vegas, same as it was in Kansas.
Kenseth won again.
He held off Kahne on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway — the third time this season the two have gone 1-2 — to reclaim some of the momentum that had escaped Kenseth of late. A strong start to the season had given Kenseth three wins in his first 11 races with Joe Gibbs Racing, and win number four came six weeks later. But he’d been in a slump of sorts heading into Bristol, with four finishes in the last six weeks of 15th or worse.
The strong start followed by a mini-slump has made the year feel very choppy for Kenseth, who now has a Sprint Cup Series best five victories.
“I think if you look at the beginning of the season, I think it was better than I ever could have dreamed of,” Kenseth said. “We were qualifying up front every week, we were leading tons of laps in position to win races. Sitting here in August, it feels like the year has been two years long with all the different things we’ve had happen to our race team.
“The last month and a half, two months has been, I hate to say reality check because I hope this is reality all the time, but we’ve struggled just a little bit more, haven’t quite had the speed. It’s been a little bit more of a struggle.”
It didn’t seem like a struggle Saturday night as Kenseth led a race-high 149 laps then held off Kahne over a white-knuckled push to the checkered flag.
Kahne first chased down Juan Pablo Montoya for second place, passing him with 17 laps to go before setting his sights on Kenseth. Although Kahne, winner of the spring race at Bristol, has two wins on the season, his place in the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field isn’t a lock and a win Saturday night would have cemented his berth.
So he stalked Kenseth, who inadvertently wrecked him at Watkins Glen earlier this month to send Kahne over the edge. It was the fourth time this season a JGR driver had wrecked Kahne — Kyle Busch was the villain three previous times — and Kahne posted on Twitter he was headed to JGR headquarters to speak to whomever would come outside.
Now with a chance to right all those wrongs in front of him, he stalked Kenseth for at least a dozen laps around Bristol.
Whatever happened was out of Kenseth’s control.
“It was all about the windshield. I never even looked back,” he said. “The thing is, you can’t race any different. If someone decides to run into the back of you or whatever, it’s going to happen. There wasn’t really anything I could do differently to guard against anything or change my line or take his away because there was only one lane where my car ran good, so I just really had to look out the windshield and try to hit the marks the best I could.
“There wasn’t a lot of extra room there, it was an intense race. Kasey has got a great reputation. He’s a really hard racer, really talented, and he’s also a really fair racer, as well. I was expecting it to be about like it was, but I really thought he was going to pass me. I thought he had a good enough car to get around me there and we had just enough to hang on.”
In the end, Kahne raced by the book, did nothing dirty and wound up second. He wasn’t very happy with himself, either.
“I was trying to get there,” said Kahne. “I would have wrecked probably both of us. It would have just been a wreck. I just tried to pass him as clean as I could, and race him as hard as I could. I thought I had him at one point. I had a good run. I tried to slide across him, but he just kept position. We were rubbing all the way down turn four. I just didn’t clear him. I just didn’t get it done and I’m upset with myself for not figuring out how to win because I clearly had a better car at the end of the race.”
It was Kenseth who got the win, plus the bonus points for Chase seeding, and as it stands now he’d be the top seed over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson when the Chase begins Sept. 15 at Chicago. Even if Kahne had pulled out the win, Kenseth still would have felt pretty good about his championship chances based on his Bristol performance.
“I’m not always a huge believer in momentum as far as just looking at paper and looking at finishes, but I am a believer in momentum as far as performance,” he said. “I think this weekend was huge for us. Even if we would have ran second and got beat at the end, I think it would have been a very encouraging weekend. It would have been a shot in our arm, like man, we had all our speed back. We led some laps. The next 12 weeks are the most important 12 weeks of the season.”
Montoya, who learned two weeks ago he won’t be brought back to Chip Ganassi Racing next season, was third. Although he could use a win, especially on an oval to prove he belongs in NASCAR, he said he was pleased with the result — especially since he came back from an early speeding penalty.
Brian Vickers was fourth, followed by Joey Logano, Paul Menard and Jeff Gordon. Marcos Ambrose was eighth and Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounded out the top 10.
With two races remaining, at Atlanta and Richmond, to set the Chase field, only points leader Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer and Kenseth have locked up berths. The rest of the top 10 in points are Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Earnhardt, Kahne, Biffle and Logano.
Defending series champion Brad Keselowski is 11th, four points out of 10th and not in Chase contention because he’s winless so far on the season. Keselowski admitted he’s not breathing easy the next two weeks.
“If you’re not in right now, I don’t care if you’re running eighth or you’re running 13th, every team is worried and concerned — not just mine,” he said. “I’m not going to be out of the worried zone unless I make it or it’s over. That’s my job as a race car driver. I care about my team. We’ve got two races left. I think they’ll be good race tracks for us.”
The two drivers currently in position for the wild-card berths are Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr., who maintained his position despite finishing 35th when he was collected in an accident that began on a restart when the pole-sitter had his tire cut by contact with Vickers. Also caught in the accident was Harvick, who drove his battered car into Hamlin’s pit, and Hamlin responded by intentionally shoving it out of the way.
It was a long and disappointing night for Kurt Busch, who started second in his effort to make the Chase for single-car team Furniture Row Racing. But a vibration dropped him from first to fifth, then sent him to pit road for a repair. He was then flagged for speeding, the pit stop was slow, and by the time he served his penalty for speeding he had dropped three laps to 39th place.
Then he made contact with Josh Wise to cause damage to his car, sending him back to pit road. The original vibration wasn’t fixed, and Busch had to go behind the wall for a length repair. He wound up 31st and dropped three spots in the standings to 12th.