By Reid Spencer (BRISTOL, Tenn.) — We’ve seen this script before, Matt Kenseth holding off Kasey Kahne in the closing laps of a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
It happened at Las Vegas in March. It happened at Kansas in April. And it happened again in Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
On inferior tires and with a fuel tank bordering on empty, Kenseth won a heated battle against Kahne to claim victory in Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, after Kahne moved into the second position on Lap 473 of 500.
The victory was Kenseth’s fifth of the year and it guaranteed the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota at least a wild card spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Juan Pablo Montoya ran third followed by Brian Vickers and Joey Logano.
The victory was Kenseth’s third at Bristol and the 29th of his career but it was anything but a cakewalk. Several times in the closing laps Kahne either pulled alongside or nosed ahead of Kenseth’s Toyota but was unable to complete a pass.
“I think, at the end of the day, I just don’t wreck people,” Kahne said plaintively after the race, clearly disappointed that he had failed to win with a superior car.
Kenseth can thank Kahne for his restraint, especially in light of four incidents earlier this season in which JGR drivers have wrecked Kahne’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
“When he got there with about eight (laps) to go, I knew we had our work cut out for us,” Kenseth said. “I didn’t know what would happen. The interesting thing about this track is that there’s only one really fast groove, and I knew I couldn’t let him outside of me…
“He almost cleared me into (Turn) 3 one time. I had to drive in really, really hard to make sure he couldn’t get up in front of me. That’s when I had that rubbing together off of (Turn) 4. There wasn’t a lot of extra room there. It was an intense race. Kasey’s got a great reputation. He’s a really hard racer, really talented and he’s also a really fair racer.
“I thought he was going to pass me. I thought he was going to get around me there but we had just enough to hang on.”
Kahne felt he couldn’t have cleared Kenseth’s car without putting both drivers in jeopardy.
“Yeah, I thought Matt did a good job of just running as hard as he could as close to the wall as possible, which helped him a lot, and then I was just trying to gain speed,” Kahne said. “I had a better car. We were on the right strategy and I just couldn’t clear him. There was a couple shots I took and I had to have been close, but I could feel him on the right side of my car and I just didn’t clear him.
“I didn’t figure out how to get by. It’s disappointing not to win here. I thought we had the best car the last 200 laps and it was a lot of work. We didn’t start the best, but (crew chief) Kenny (Francis) made a lot of good calls and our strategy was perfect at the end. It was a great night for us, good for the points and things, but yeah, I wish I could have figured out how to get by him.”
Montoya, watching the battle from a safe distance in third place, was hoping for contact between the first- and second-place cars.
“I was hoping they were going to wreck on the white flag (lap), to be honest,” Montoya said.
Kenseth led the field to green for a restart after a wreck in Turn 1 involving Montoya, David Stremme and Jeff Burton caused the ninth caution of the evening. By Lap 430, Kenseth had opened a lead of more than one second over Jeff Gordon.
Caution for debris on the frontstretch slowed the field for the 10th time on Lap 439. Kenseth and Gordon, both saving fuel, brought the field to green on Lap 447, but before the cars could complete the circuit, contact between the cars of Brian Vickers and Denny Hamlin ignited a massive wreck in Turns 3 and 4 that dealt serious blows to the Chase hopes of Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski.
Truex finshed 35th and fell two spots to 14th in points but still holds a provisional wild card berth with two races left before the Chase field is set at Richmond. Keselowski came home 30th and fell from eighth to 11th in the standings with no victory to offer him safe haven as a wild card.
Logano, on the other hand, moved into the top 10, as did Kahne. Kurt Busch finished 31st thanks to a loose wheel and a lengthy stay in the garage and dropped from ninth to 12th in points.
After a stoppage of four minutes 27 seconds for debris clean-up from the Lap 447 wreck, Montoya surged from fourth to second on the Lap 454 restart and took off in pursuit of Kenseth, With a full load of fuel and fresh tires, however, Kahne slipped past Montoya for second on Lap 473, caught Kenseth and waged an intensely competitive battle over the closing laps before falling short by .188 seconds.
Note: With a 14th-place finish, Clint Bowyer clinched a spot in the Chase. Bowyer remained second in the Cup standings and narrowed Jimmie Johnson’s lead to 18 points, after Johnson broke the radiator on his No. 48 Chevy in a Lap 358 wreck and finished 36th.