Matt Kenseth and the No. 20 team gambled on a late-race no tire pit stop that paid off in a win in Sunday's rain-delayed Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.
The win was Kenseth's third on a 1.5-mile track - fourth overall - this season. His other wins in 2013 on intermediate tracks came at Las Vegas and Kansas.
“I dreamed about it, but I probably didn’t imagine that would be realistic," Kenseth said about his success so far in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing. "Like I said, it’s been incredible. We’ve had some moments that tested us this season already and obviously it’s great to have the four wins. Hopefully, we can keep it rolling. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Kenseth took the lead on lap 244 during the final round of pit stops under caution after Brian Vickers hit the Turn 3 wall when he had a tire go down. Jimmie Johnson - who dominated the race leading 182 laps - exited second with two fresh right-side tires, but spun out in Turn 2 on the restart, while trying to maintain second. He fell back to 25th after a pit stop for four tires and rallied to finish ninth.
"I knew that was going to be our only shot to get it done today," said Jason Ratcliff, crew chief of the No. 20 Toyota. "In the position we’re in now with the 20 car -- we’ve had some success at the start of the season and we can take some shots like this and we can take some chances. This was one where I came short a few times on the Nationwide side as a crew chief and this is one that is really special to me. To get it in the Cup Series is a huge, huge deal."
Johnson was unhappy about the final restart and the turn of events.
"The No. 20 (Kenseth) broke the pace car speed, which you aren't supposed to, but, they aren't calling guys on that so I need to start trying that in the future," Johnson said. "We were kind of in an awkward situation in that restart there. And then we were like three and four wide going in the corner, then something happened with the air and just kind of turned me around. Unfortunate, but at least we rallied back for a good finish."
But Kenseth defended his actions and was confused as to why Johnson was upset.
"I had no idea what happened to him...or what I could have possibly done to upset him,” he said.
"When I got to the box, I went. I certainly didn't feel I did anything wrong."
Jamie McMurray finished a season-best second. Clint Bowyer placed third with Joey Logano fourth and Kyle Busch, overcoming an early spin, to finish fifth.
"It was a really good day for us," McMurray said. "I wasn't sure after Happy Hour what we had. We've had really quick cars for the last two months, and have not been able to capitalize on it. We've had really unfortunate luck. But cool to have a really good run. I was quite a bit quicker than him (Bowyer), and I guess the No. 20 (Kenseth) wasn't on tires, so you are just fighting to get by as quick as you can because you never know when a caution is going to come out, or how it is going to play out." (Read More)
Kurt Busch finished sixth and was followed by Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Kevin Harvick.
For Gordon, the finish marked the first time since late last season that he’s placed in the top 10 in back-to-back races. He was second last weekend at Sonoma.
“I’m happy the way we are running," Gordon said. "The last two weeks have been very promising. That is going to help us as we move forward. We are doing the right things. We’ve got to continue to qualify better, execute better, hope some things go our way and then I have to be able to get those restarts."
It was a tough day for defending race winner Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle, who were both collected in a crash that was triggered when Kurt Busch made contact with the Miller Lite Ford of Keselowski. Both were able to return to the race to finish 33rd and 34th, respectively. Keselowski took the biggest hit in the standings this week, dropping four spots to 13th.
“It was frustrating for sure,” said Keselowski’s crew chief Paul Wolfe. “That move there onto the apron was definitely uncalled for. I don’t know what Kurt was doing down there. Unfortunately it collected us and a bunch of other cars and it really put us in a bad spot.” (Read More)
Denny Hamlin also endured a frustrating afternoon. He cut a tire early in the race and then had another issue late in the going that caused his FedEx Toyota to slam into the wall.
While Hamlin was disappointed, he said his ailing back felt fine although Joe Gibbs Racing confirmed an Indianapolis doctor would check him out before participating in a test at the Brickyard on Monday.
"My back feels good -- really good, I'd say," Hamlin said after his lap 147 wreck. "It feels the same as it did this morning. Really, that was the least of the concerns after this hit."
Pole winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 12th. He led 10 laps, but hit the tire carcass that rolled off of Hamlin's car on lap 38.
"You just fix it and keep going," Earnhardt Jr. said. "The guys did a good job on pit road all day long working on it and trying to fix everything. I'm not sure we got everything back where it is supposed to be, but we did well-enough to get a decent finish out it. Just proud of how hard the team worked. Did a good job for qualifying, and put a good car out there for the race. Can't do anything about what happened out there on the race track with that casing. They worked hard on it to get it right, and get it good enough where we could run well. So, they deserve a lot of credit today."
Johnson is still the series point leader by 38 over Edwards with Bowyer, Harvick and Kenseth the top five.
The Sprint Cup Series now heads to Daytona International Speedway for next Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400.