It seems that a change of scene really can do you the world of good. Ever since leaving his long-time home at Roush Fenway Racing at the start of 2013 for a new home at Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth has been on a seemingly unstoppable roll, and on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway he notched up his fifth win of the year and locked himself into the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Even though he led for 149 of the 500 laps in the Irwin Tools Night Race, clinching the win turned out to be far from an easy feat under the floodlights in Tennessee. Race strategy left Kenseth running to the finish on fumes and on badly worn tyres, and the smart money would have been on the more sprightly car of Kasey Kahne to hunt down the #20 and steal the win at the last minute. But it turned out that Kahne couldn't quite seal the deal and when the chequered flag he was still inches behind Kenseth, who went to victory lane by 0.188s.
The race had been led to the green flag almost three hours earlier by Kenseth's JGR team mate Denny Hamlin, who led from pole for the first 22 laps of the race before Kurt Busch moved up from second place and who was still on point when the first caution came out on lap 41 when Ryan Truex hit the wall on his Cup Series début with a flat left-front tyre. Busch stayed out under the caution but many pitted, included Brad Keselowski who ran into David Reutimann on pit road and subsequently claimed that he simply didn't see the #83 emerging from its pit stall. Neither car suffered serious damage in the incident.
One man happy to see the caution was Kyle Busch, who had been forced to start from the back of the pack after crashing on his qualifying lap on Friday. Although he'd been making some progress through the field, the tightly packed traffic on the claustrophobic half mile Bristol Motor Speedway short track made it hard going and all the time the leaders were revelling in clear air behind and threatening to lap him. The caution not only warded off the threat, it enabled the #18 to make up several positions on pit road before the race restarted on lap 47.
Josh Wise had been enjoying a strong run in the top ten when contact with Kurt Busch brought that to an end on lap 89. Busch had already surrendered the lead to Carl Edwards on lap 77 to make an unscheduled dive for pit road for a suspected loose wheel. In fact it was more serious than that and the team discovered a damaged wheel hub that required them to take the #78 to the garage for repairs which put Busch multiple laps off the lead and out of the running. All he could do now was come out as soon as possible in damage control mode to minimise the damage than the inevitably poor result was going to to to his hopes of making the Chase cut-off next month.
"Just a right-rear hub failure," said Busch later. "When you are 20 laps down there is nothing you can do. We just rode around and we are down, but we are not out. I guess at the end of the race we gained a bunch of points back with guys having trouble. My thoughts all through the race were we just have to go to Atlanta and Richmond and win them both."
Edwards handed the lead over to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in order to pit under the Wise-instigated caution. The #88 led Clint Bowyer, Juan Pablo Montoya, Bobby Labonte, Paul Menard, Greg Biffle and David Ragan to the green flag on lap 97 with Ryan Newman in eighth the first man to have pitted having beaten Edwards in the run out of pit road.
The race was back under caution minutes later, and this time the Busch at the centre of the yellow was Kyle rather than Kurt. The #18 had got nervous running into turn 3 on lap 106 which forced Busch to check his speed, and Joey Logano had rear-ended him as a result. The #22 came out of it worst, the Penske hit crew taking to the car's nose and fender with a heavy duty sledgehammer to try and beat out the bodywork as quickly as possible; Busch was able to continue but was sent to the back of the lead lap (32nd) for having too many crew members over the wall trying to sort out the #18's damage. The Bristol sweep just wasn't happening for Kyle Busch after all this weekend despite resounding success in the Nationwide and Truck events.
Earnhardt continued to lead Bowyer, Labonte, Edwards, Montoya and Martin Truex Jr. when racing resumed on lap 112, but Bowyer was soon able to pass the #88 down the inside of turn 4 to claim the lead on lap 126 and quickly pulled out a big gap over the field. But this wasn't to be Bowyer's night either: just as the #15 was getting set to lap Kyle Busch who was running in 28th place, the #15 was suddenly spun by contact with backmarker Travis Kvapil and then hit by Bobby Labonte in the fallout.