A second win for new team Joe Gibbs Racing left Matt Kenseth walking on air after the end of a very successful weekend in Kansas for the #20 driver and his crew, which hadn't put a foot wrong all weekend.
"I really feel like I'm living a dream, this is a dream come true," said Kenseth in victory lane after clinching victory in the STP 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway on Sunday afternoon. "This is such a fast race car obviously, [to] be on the pole and really a dominant race team.
"I knew the first time I talked to these guys, I really started to feel it - these guys really are contenders. They're an awesome race team and I'm glad to be with them," he added, while quick to say that he wasn't taking this dream start to the new stage in his Cup career for granted.
"Standing here right now you don't know if or when you'll ever win again," he admitted. "Our cars have been so incredibly fast all year and we don't have all the finishes to show for it, but I'm so thankful to have another win and hopefully that will get us up there a little bit in the points."
It almost looked as though this weekend's Kansas race was going to be another to file in the 'close, but no cigar' column, since despite leading for 163 of the 267 laps of the three hour race Kenseth suddenly started to struggle near the end and came under growing threat from Hendrick Motorsports' Kasey Kahne who was closing fast.
"With about 15 to go my car turned loose and especially into turn 3. Almost lost it two or three times and gave up probably a second a lap to him. I was afraid he was going to get me - one more lap and he probably would have," Kenseth admitted. "I got really loose getting into 3 ... I actually did it twice in a row and thought we were going to get beat."
Kenseth managed to hold on and crossed the finish line just 0.151s ahead of Kahne, who had to be content with second place - which was still good enough to boost him into second place in the Cup point standings behind his team mate, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
"I needed clouds," said Kahne, explaining that the sun coming out near the end had really affected the handling of the #5. "We tightened up a little bit on that final run," adding that the choice not to put a full set of tyres on during either of his last two pit stops had also played a part. "I knew we were going to be a little loose but didn't think it would be quite that bad. Matt was fast and I just did everything I could and he would go to those spots and I couldn't make any ground."
Kenseth had earlier converted pole position to a lead for virtually the entire first 111 laps of the race, with just one exception during the first round of pit stops. That had already seen four of the race's eight cautions, with Dave Blaney and Elliott Sadler both eliminated from the race by accidents.
Kenseth's team mate Kyle Busch had also been for a harmless spin of his own on lap 6. Despite coming off a high after sweeping Texas last week, Busch approached Kansas with trepidation as it's always been a bogey track for him that he simply can't seem to get to grips with, especially since the recent repaving project has made it super-smooth.
"Running third doing fine, car a little tight and you spin out. Don't know what to do with that and then we're back in traffic all day," he said of that early setback. "Traffic is way worse. Just trying to get back up to the front and making some gains, but car just snaps out from you every corner.”
The #18 did the same again on lap 103, and this time with devastating consequences: not only did Busch take a hard impact into the wall at turn 4, but then the car slid down the banking and collected the speeding #22 Penske Racing car despite Joey Logano's best attempts at avoidance. Both cars were absolutely wrecked by the impact.
“I watched the #18 and he was spinning out, and I saw it the whole time," recalled Logano afterwards. “It looked like he was going to stay up there because he kind of slapped the wall with the right side after he hit it the first time, so I'm like, 'All right, I'm gonna gun it and get by him [down] here.' And as soon as I committed to that, I saw him start coming back down."
Coming on top of the serious penalties and suspensions dolled out to the Penske team mid-week for rules transgressions at Texas, it's been a depressing week for the team. Logano himself has plummeted to 20th position in the Sprint Cup standings after the events of the last seven days.
"We weren't gonna gain many points this weekend, but we were gonna try to rally for the best possible finish we could get out of it, but it's not good for us," Logano admitted.
The departure of one of his JGR team mates from the race also seemed to sap some of Kenseth's early dominance, as divergent race strategies saw the #20 losing the lead of the race at the restart to Martin Truex Jr. Jimmie Johnson and then Carl Edwards, Kenseth's old team mate at Roush Fenway Racing, subsequently perked up and took over the lead for a spell, but it was surely when Edwards handed off the race lead to his rookie team mate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. that Kenseth got fired up again. Stenhouse was at the wheel of the #17 car that had been Kenseth's home for the better part of a decade: getting back in front was now a point of principle!
Before he could do so there was cautions for Kenseth's sole remaining JGR team mate Brian Vickers (sitting in for Denny Hamlin) spinning in turn 2 on lap 174, and a multi-car accident on lap 182 that wrecked Sam Hornish Jr. Casey Mears and also caught up Marcos Ambrose, Danica Patrick and David Gilliland.
"I was rolling the top there and the #9 [Ambrose] got loose," explained Mears. "He was loose for a long time and I slowly, slowly checked up and the #38 [Gilliland] never did and tagged the back of me. We probably would have just spun off into the infield, but we collected whoever spun with us and tore the car up really bad. It's just a bad day."
"I couldn't see anything," Hornish admitted. "I saw the back of the [Gilliland] and then I saw the #9 [Ambrose] sitting sideways right at the exit of the corner. I lifted and turned down, which made my hit to the inside wall harder because as soon as you lift and put all that weight up there it gives me enough turn to try to get away from the #9, but then I can't get it back in the other direction."
Kenseth finally got back into the lead just before a debris caution on lap 219, which was the result of some bodywork dropping off the #2 Penske car of reigning champion Brad Keselowski, which had sustained bodywork damage in jostling very early in the race that had only got worse as the afternoon went on. Stenhouse Jr. and Edwards were among those on pit lane when the yellow came out, which cost them crucial track position at the restart. Kenseth was more fortunate.
"Thankfully, I had a couple of really crazy-good restarts for some reason and made up some ground and got us back in position," he said. "Our car was very fast in clean air. It was reasonable in dirty air. But it wasn't quite good enough to catch all them guys and pass 'em [in traffic.]"
Once in front after the later debris caution, and with no more yellows in the offing, Kenseth seemed to have it made: "It was kind of like musical chairs," Kenseth explained. "You had to be out front when the music stopped." The late-charging Kahne provided some anxious late moments, but finally the #20 claimed the chequered flag and headed to to victory lane.
It was the third consecutive Cup race in which the polesitter had gone on to claim the race win. Unlike other motor racing series, that's a rare state of affairs in NASCAR: the last time it had happened was back in 1985 when Bill Elliott won at Michigan, then Dale Earnhardt clinched Bristol and Elliott was victorious from the front at Darlington.
The win boosted Kenseth up to eighth place in the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings, just behind Kyle Busch who slumped five places after his Kansas nightmare. Jimmie Johnson still leads the points after finishing in third place behind Kahne this weekend after a quietly effective weekend.
Fourth in the STP 400 was Truex, who was followed to the line by his Michael Waltrip Racing team mate Clint Bowyer. Keselowski made it home to the finish despite the #2 falling to pieces, classified in sixth ahead of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing's Jamie McMurray and Richard Petty Motorsports' Aric Almirola. The top ten was rounded out by the remaining MWR driver Mark Martin and by Richard Childress Racing's Paul Menard, which left Stenhouse squeezed out into 11th place after that late setback being in the pits as the last caution flew.Full race results
and Sprint Cup Championship standings