This is not the way Matt Kenseth typically wins races.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason he’s been so successful this season.
With a dominant Jimmie Johnson on fresher tires lined up behind him on a restart with 20 of 267 laps remaining, the odds were against Kenseth earning his fourth Sprint Cup Series victory of the year.
Whatever the odds were, they were better than zero, which is the chance Kenseth felt he had if he and crew chief Jason Ratcliff didn’t try something different to win Sunday’s rain-delayed Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.
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On the race’s final pit stop, Kenseth took fuel only, while the rest of the lead lap cars – including Johnson – took at least two new tires. On the restart, Johnson uncharacteristically spun out while racing with Joey Logano and Kenseth held off Jamie McMurray for what seemed an improbable victory.
“You know, we talked about it after the third victory; that we could be aggressive on our calls, which we’ve been aggressive on our calls all year,” Ratcliff said.
“But today was a perfect opportunity to take advantage of that, and we did, and Matt hung on and drove his heart out and brought us home with a victory.”
The Chase format used to decide the series champion rewards drivers for wins during the season. Since Kenseth already had three coming into the race – tied with Johnson for the most – an opportunity presented itself.
“When we rolled off (for the restart), I thought in my head we had about a five percent chance of winning; if something didn’t happen to (Johnson),” Kenseth said. “But, if we would have got two tires and came out behind (Johnson), unless he broke, I thought we had almost a zero percent chance of winning.
“You know, when you look at it like that, it was a great call.”
With nine races still remaining until the 12-driver Chase field, there may well be more opportunities for Kenseth and his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team.
The win – the 28th of his career – didn’t change Kenseth’s position in the series standings – he’s still fifth – but his four wins is a season high and right now would make him the No. 1 seed in the Chase.
On the restart on which Johnson spun out, he complained over his team radio that Kenseth had failed to maintain pace car speed. Kenseth said he had no idea of any controversy until well after the race ended.
“I certainly didn’t feel like I did anything wrong from where I was, but you know, after dominating all day and you have a problem at the end, it’s always – I imagine it’s frustrating,” he said.
“We’ve been there, too.”
Clint Bowyer finished third, Logano was fourth and Kyle Busch was fifth. Johnson, the series points leader, rallied from 25th with 16 laps remaining and ended up ninth.
With Johnson out of the picture on the final restart, McMurray appeared to have the fastest car but it took him considerable time to get around Bowyer for second and in position to challenge Kenseth for the win.
“I ran with (Kenseth) for a good part of the day and I felt like there were times I was a little bit better than him and times he was a little bit better than me,” McMurray said. “With no (new) tires those last 10 laps, he was quite a bit slower than what we were. I think tires were important; it was just the right amount of time (for Kenseth) at the end.”
An early, seven-car accident took out two possible contenders – Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle. Keselowski dropped out of the Top 10 in points for the first time this season.
“I thought they were pretty good, actually. I thought the track had a lot of grip and I like running this track,” said Keselowski, who won this race a year ago. “It’s a shame.”