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 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’ve 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 out.
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.”
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. The next 12 weeks are the most important 12 weeks of the season.”