Matt Kenseth had already defied expectations - other people's, and even his own - by claiming five wins during the regular NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. That was more than enough to put him through to the all-important Chase that decided the championship title in November, but he was under no illusion that this was where the hard work would really start.
Just a fortnight into the Chase, and he's actually making it look easy: two wins out of two Chase events, the dream start. It literally couldn't get any better for him. Fans watching the events unfold at the end of the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway might have been forgiven if they were watching a replay of the previous week's race at Chicagoland, as the same two Joe Gibbs Racing team mates - Kenseth, with Kyle Busch in hot pursuit - once again raced away from the field to claim the honours.
For Kenseth the victory was especially sweet, coming as it did on his 500th race outing in the Cup series. And it had been particularly unexpected, since the one-mile New Hampshire oval is far from being one of Kenseth's favourite. In fact he's never won here before.
"I didn't even know there was a victory lane here," he joked afterwards. "This is probably one of my worst places ... For me to win at New Hampshire, first of all, is more than a stretch and more than a dream," he added, brimming with the emotion of the moment that forced tears to his eyes.
Kenseth credited his team with supplying him with the perfect car, but his crew chief Jason Ratcliff wasn't having any of it.
"He doesn't take enough credit," said Ratcliff. "You don't just come out here and win on any given Sunday. This guy has done an incredible job. It's been an incredible season for us."
"The #20 just had a lot more than us this week for some reason," Busch said of his victorious teammate as he finished in the runners-up pot for a second week in succession. "We're not real sure why. Sometimes you just get those magic cars. Hopefully there are a couple for us left this year."
It's certainly been an amazing maiden season for Kenseth with JGR, which he joined at the start of 2013 after leaving his long-term home at Roush Fenway Racing over the winter. Many at the time questioned whether it was a wise move for the 41-year-old from Wisconsin, but it's safe to say that absolutely no one is asking that question anymore.
With Kenseth pulling back-to-back wins and Busch only inches away, the imperative for the rest of the 11 drivers in the 2013 Chase was to make sure they didn't give up too much ground in the meantime. That meant finishing near the front themselves and not making any mistakes that could see them slump to the back of the field with possible terminal consequences to their title ambitions. With only five of the 43 cars at New Hampshire retiring, there was a lot of scope for disaster this week and not everyone emerged from Loudon unscathed.
Kasey Kahne took over the lead of the 300-lap race from polesitter Ryan Newman on the second lap and maintained the position through to the first caution of the race, which was for Josh Wise being spun following contact with Michael McDowell, which led to the first round of pit stops. Martin Truex Jr. got the jump on Kahne at the restart but there was an immediate follow-up caution when Juan Pablo Montoya inadvertently sent his Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing team mate Jamie McMurray into the wall, who was then collected by Kevin Swindell which did significant damage to the rear end of the #1 in the process.
Truex kept the lead at the restart on lap 47 and quickly pulled away to leave Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Newman, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth fighting for position behind him, but the race was soon back under caution on lap 52 after Bobby Labonte slowed with a blown tyre and got collected by David Gilliland, doing extensive damage to the front and rear of the #47 and leaving the track strewn with debris.
Truex aced the restart on lap 60 and was soon forging ahead while Kahne settled into second place ahead of Kenseth which lasted until the next round of pit stops under green start started shortly after the lap count reached triple digits. Having made an earlier off-sync stop for loose lug nuts, Dale Earnhardt Jr. picked up the lead for a time until he made his own dive for pit road on lap 130 which handed the lead back to Truex with Kenseth now up into second ahead of Keselowski, Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Johnson, Busch and Newman.
As the race passed the midway point, Kenseth was clearly coming on strong and on lap 152 he finally pulled off his move for the lead, shortly before the fourth caution of the afternoon, this time for debris on the frontstraight. That allowed for a new round of stops under caution and some experimentation from the teams in terms of strategy: Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers, Jamie McMurray, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano all opted for a two-tyre stop which put them ahead of Truex, Kenseth and Johnson at the restart.
It was a great getaway for Hendrick duo Gordon and Earnhardt, but Truex was also on the charge as he cut through the traffic and gave chase, pulling Kenseth and Johnson along with him. Despite having only two fresh tyres, Gordon's lead at the front remained stead through to the next caution of the day on lap 201 for a shredded banner that had landed on the backstretch and lined up a new round of visits to pit lane. What transpired flipped the race into a brand new phase, writing out former lead characters and installing new chief pragmatists for the final third of the race.
Gordon's stop was little short of a disaster: the #24 slid through its pit box, the front splitter just hanging over the boundary line by mere inches but enough to force the pit crew to stop what they were doing and push the car back into place before proceeding. As a result, Gordon plummeted form the lead all the way back to 22nd at the restart, and try as he might over the remainder of the race he would only be able to claw his way back to 15th place by the chequered flag.
“The driver can't make mistakes,” Gordon said afterwards. "This is a short race, track position is so important, you can't make mistakes ... I made a crucial one and I can't allow that to happen."
At the restart, two of the other leading contenders before the caution - Earnhardt and Truex - made contact. While it didn't do any serious harm, it meant that it handed Matt Kenseth an opportunity to apply pressure on Clint Bowyer, who had picked up the race lead by staying off pit road entirely; consequently, his older tyres were no match for the new set on the #20 and Kenseth was soon out in front and extended a two-second lead over Jimmie Johnson who was soon past Bowyer for second as the #15 continued to wane the longer the stint wore on, eventually also surrendering positions to Truex and McMurray before finally pitting on lap 242 once the pit window to make it to the finish opened.
Unfortunately for Bowyer his stop came just before the penultimate caution of the race, triggered by David Gilliland's engine deciding to call it a day in no uncertain terms. That meant everyone got to pit under the caution - Kenseth winning the race off pit road ahead of Truex and Johnson, the the #18 JGR crew once again pulling off a brilliant show to boost Kyle Busch into fourth ahead of McMurray, Earnhardt, Kahne and Greg Biffle for the restart. Bowyer meanwhile at least got his lap back by taking the wavearound, but it also put him at the back of a long line of traffic - his gamble of staying out last time hadn't really worked out.
Kenseth pulled away at the green flag and Kyle Busch flew up into second place, but the race was still really anyone's at this point. Early leader Kasey Kahne was certainly still in the frame - right until the #5 planted itself into the frontstretch inside retaining wall on lap 253 to bring out caution number seven. It was a devastating blow for Kahne, since the lack of retirements would mean he would fall to a 37th place finish in the final results which alone could spell the end of his title bid for another year. No wonder he looked crestfallen and had few words for the media afterwards.
"I hit the inside wall, but I'm not sure how I got there," he said. "I really don't know what happened. Just racing and I'm not sure if there was contact or if I just spun. I seriously don't really remember how it happened."
There were few takers for pit road this time, everyone already having thrown the dice under the previous caution. The sole notable exception was Bowyer who had little to lose in the circumstances, although the stop was so problem-laden that he probably still wished he hadn't bothered.
Kenseth pulled away again at the green flag on lap 258 and this time he was starting to look ominously untouchable. BY contrast, his team mate Kyle Busch starting from second spot had his hands full fending off Earnhardt, and Greg Biffle nearly surprised them both with the best start of the lot to launch himself into contention with just over 40 laps remaining in the race.
Busch finally got a grip on second and followed Kenseth's move away to safety, while Earnhardt lost the battle for third to Biffle and then made his second contact of the day with Truex - harder, this time - which allowed Johnson to move up past them and into contention. With no further interruptions to the proceedings, and Busch unable to make sufficient in-roads into his team mate's lead in the time remaining, the top four was now a lock for the remainder of the race and Kenseth's final margin of victory over Busch was half a second, while Busch himself had over a second in hand over Biffle who was was also comfortable safe from any last minute moves by Johnson.
Four seconds further down the road, Jamie McMurray didn't let that early conflagration with Montoya stop him from making a strong run to fifth place as the first of the non-Chase contenders across the line after finding his way around Earnhardt who ended up in sixth place just ahead of Brian Vickers, the winner of the last Cup race at New Hampshire but who this time had been forced to start from the back of the grid after missing qualifying on account of being in Kentucky to compete in the Nationwide Series.
Jeff Burton and Carl Edwards were next up, ahead of former long-time leader Truex who fell to tenth place by the finish as the weather become cooler and cloudier, and he was even pipped for the 'most laps led' bonus by Kenseth whose final tally at the front was 106, eight more than Truex. Kurt Busch was the next Chase contender in 13th, left lamenting a race in which he and the Furniture Row Racing team had simply failed to nail the set-up they needed; even so, he still finished just ahead of Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer. Other than Kahne, the last of the Chase contenders was Kevin Harvick, who battled his way to 20th place despite overheating temperatures with the #29.
As a result of the tight race this week, Kenseth and Busch pull out in front in the Chase standings but perhaps not by as much as you'd have expected: Kenseth's lead over his team mate is now 14pts, but Busch is just four points clear of Johnson who lurks ominously in third spot ready to pounce at the first sign of weakness in the remaining eight races of the season.
There's a gap of 18 points behind Johnson before a closely-packed group of drivers that is now headed by Roush team mates Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, the latter thanks to that terrific flying final restart that puts him ahead of Harvick, Kurt Busch, Gordon, Newman and Bowyer. At rick of becoming semi-detached is the final group of thee consisting of Earnhardt, Logano and Kahne who has dropped to the bottom of the Chase a a result of that inexplicable late spin at New Hampshire.
However, as easy as it would be to write off Kahne's chances of bouncing back from here, it's worth noting that Jimmie Johnson finished in 39th at the same event in 2006 and yet still went on to claim that year's Sprint Cup championship. That little fact alone tells you it's far too early to start writing people off just yet or to consider Kenseth a sure-thing for the 2013 title.
Of course, if Kenseth were to pull off a third consecutive victory with a win next weekend at Dover International Speedway, then we might just have to reconsider. If that were to happen then we might be on the verge of another Tony Stewart-esque run such as the one that saw the #14 propelled to the title in 2011; but those sort of spectacular fireworks are hardly on the cards. Not again. Not so soon. Surely?
See full race results
, championship standings
, and an interview with race winner Matt Kenseth