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 have cemented his berth.
In the end, 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.