In one sense, Chase leaders Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson were right where you’d expect them – matched off virtually side-by-side.
In another sense, neither was where you’d expect him – Victory Lane.
Kenseth finished third Saturday night in the Bank of America 500 to hold a four-point overall Chase lead over Johnson, who finished fourth.
The show at the end was between last season’s champ, Brad Keselowski, and Kasey Kahne, with Keselowski winning the race to salvage something from what has been a brutal season.
Kenseth and Johnson – two of the smoothest, steadiest drivers in NASCAR – conserved what they could toward the big picture.
“You have to be good enough to finish top-5 every week to win this,” said Kenseth, who didn’t look anything like a top-5 finisher the first half of the race.
Kenseth qualified poorly – 20th. And his car certainly didn’t handle well initially.
“I was getting cranky (with his crew) about not getting my car to turn. They did a pretty incredible job to get it back there (in contention). They really hit it (in the third pit stop), found something I liked. I could pass people again.”
So much so that on the final restart, with 26 laps left, Kenseth was back in position to win.
“It was crazy,” he said, “the two cars in front of me took two tires (versus Kenseth’s four). I couldn’t believe I had a chance to win it again. I had to get around Kasey, and I couldn’t get it done.”
That restart was trouble for Johnson.
“I pushed the 5 (Kahne) off into Turn 1, and I was too close to him and washed into his wake,” Johnson said. “I lost too much (track position) at that point.”
Now comes a trip to Talladega, a superspeedway that requires restrictor plates and is famous for chain-reaction wrecks. It’s a place where a driver can do everything right and still have a horrible day.
Kenseth refuses to stew about all that.
“You can get nervous and depressed, thinking about crashing, or you can see it as an opportunity,“ Kenseth said. “To be nervous about it before you go seems like a waste of time.”