BRISTOL, Tenn. – 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 No. 4 came 6 weeks later. But he’d been in a slump of sorts heading into Bristol, with four finishes in the last 6 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. “... Sitting here in August, it feels like the year has been 2 years long.
“... The last month and a half, 2 months ... we’ve struggled just a little bit more, haven’t quite had the speed.”
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, and he 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. “... 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. ... We had just enough to hang on.”
In the end, Kahne raced by the book, did nothing dirty and wound up second.
“I was trying to get there,” said Kahne. “I would have wrecked probably both of us. ... 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.”