NASCAR

Kenseth surges, Johnson stumbles

Matt Kenseth won the Sprint Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Matt Kenseth won the Sprint Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
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Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip — winner of 84 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and a three-time champion — serves as lead analyst for NASCAR on FOX. He was selected for induction into the prestigious NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012. Want more from DW? Become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

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I think it is safe to say that we have seen a role-reversal of sorts over the last few weeks when you look at the No. 20 car and the No. 48 car. Matt Kenseth easily had the hot hand early in the year, bringing home four wins and then he cooled off. Jimmie Johnson also put four wins on the board and if these last two weeks are any indication, he’s definitely cooled off.

Two weeks ago at Michigan, Jimmie not only wrecked his primary car in practice but then the engine let go in the back-up car during the race. Matt didn’t have a great race at Michigan but he did start twelfth and finished 15th.

Saturday night under the lights at Bristol Motor Speedway they were once again on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Matt qualified fifth, led 149 laps and also brought home his five win of the season. Jimmie qualified 13th, didn’t run all that great, got in a wreck and finished 36th.

Now sure, Jimmie is already locked into the Chase so some folks may want to believe they are trying things here and experimenting there. The problem with that theory is they aren’t trying to wreck their primary cars two weeks in a row nor blow up engines.

Those are the kinds of things you don’t want to have happened to you with the Chase only a couple of races away. You want momentum on your side. Now is the time you need to be peaking collective as a team and not backsliding.

When we saw Matt come out of the box so strong earlier in the year, I felt he was going to be one of the main players standing in the way of Jimmie winning his sixth championship. Especially after his performance Saturday night, Matt is showing us that’s the case. It was his fifth win of the season. That’s 15 bonus points for the Chase he has already accumulated with two races still remaining in the regular season.

You might actually look at it as a role-reversal of sorts. Unless Jimmie wins at Atlanta or Richmond these next two weeks, Matt will start the Chase as the points leader due to having the extra bonus points than Jimmie has. I also look to this weekend to tell us a lot about where both programs are.

Matt is really strong on the mile-and-a-half tracks like what Atlanta is. Matt has won at Las Vegas, Kansas and Kentucky, which are all mile-and-a-half tracks. Jimmie, well, Jimmie is strong everywhere. So I think the Atlanta race Sunday will tell us a lot. I think we’ll see if Matt’s momentum will continue, will Jimmie’s luck change from the past two weeks and who has their program pointed in the right direction.

Based on his overall regular season performance I still believe it’s Jimmie’s championship to lose. With that said, I like Matt Kenseth and his chances to win his second championship. I’ve been amazed at his performance all year with is brand new team and it was more apparent than ever Saturday night.

Let me state this next topic really, really clearly. For the life of me I do not understand the criticism from the fans of how Kasey Kahne drove Saturday night and raced Matt. I’ve been in this sport for what seems like my entire life. The kind of driving and the way Kasey raced Matt Saturday night is the way it’s SUPPOSED to be done.

This crap of “bump-n-run” - “rattling someone’s cage” - “doing what I had to do” - “I’d wreck my own mother to win” – they just don’t set well with me and they really are just that – crap. That’s not racing. That’s wrecking people to win.

Heck I’ve even hated the name “bump-n-run” since it was coined. I saw an interesting post on Facebook after the race by a fan that I thought was really impressive that I wanted to share with you. “Integrity is choosing your thoughts and actions based on values rather than on personal gain.”

There is no question Saturday night that Kasey Kahne could have roughed up Matt Kenseth and dumped him if he wanted to. Kasey could have done a number of things to Matt but Kasey made the decision to race Matt clean. That’s Kasey Kahne to a “T”.

How anyone can be critical of a driver who races another driver with respect and skill - who doesn’t believe in having to dump the driver to win the race because his reputation and integrity is more important than a win – how anyone can be critical of that driver is simply beyond me. We’re better than that. Our sport is better than that. I tip my hat to Kasey for the way he handled himself Saturday night.

You had to also be impressed with the outstanding race at Bristol from Juan Pablo Montoya. He started 16th and finished a strong third. Of course it’s already well-documented that he is out of that No. 42 car at the end of the season. He was driving that car like no one else Saturday night. He was driving his car down into the corner making passes on the bottom when other people couldn’t, so what a great night for Juan.

Brian Vickers made a great recovery Saturday night and got a great top five. That’s Brian’s fourth top 10 in his last four Bristol races. Joey Logano backed up his win two weeks ago at Michigan with another strong performance at Bristol. What’s ironic about his fifth-place finish is it moved him three spots up to 10th in the points, which is the cut-off for the automatic berth in the Chase, while his teammate Brad Keselowski lost three places and is out of the Top 10.

That stress level at the No. 2 car has to be pegged right now. Brad is our defending champion. He still doesn’t have a win and now with only two races to go he is outside the top 10. By not having a win yet, Brad isn’t going to get a wild card spot. It would be unprecedented to have our defending champion unable to be able to race to defend his crown.

Paul Menard, Jeff Gordon and Marcos Ambrose had very good nights coming home sixth, seventh and eighth, respecitvely. Dale Jr. who didn’t want to risk running out of gas and taking the points hit since he also doesn’t have a win yet, came down pit road late, got some fuel and raced back to 10th, so that was a great decision on their part. He had a strong car and led 32 laps, so Junior Nation was thrilled because that keeps him in seventh spot in the points with two races to go.

Kyle Busch won the truck race on Wednesday night. He then won the Nationwide race on Friday night. Saturday night was rough for him. He started in the back. He was up and down all night long, but when it was all said and done, Kyle got himself an 11th-place finish. He’s solidly in the Chase with his three wins.

Poor ol’Clint Bowyer. He started 24th. He raced his way to the front, led fifty laps but got wrecked. He came back to finish 14th. I know he had to be disappointed because it looked like for a while there he was going to either get a win or finish in the top two or three. There was still a silver lining for the No. 15 car, though. By coming back to finish 14th, it locked Clint into the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase. So now he and crew chief Brian Pattie have a little cushion and can experiment on some things should they choose to with two races remaining before the Chase starts.

On the other end of the spectrum were guys like Carl Edwards who was running up front and had engine trouble. Engine trouble from a Roush-Yates engine is quite unheard of. Martin Truex Jr. was in a wreck with Kevin Harvick. That did cost Martin two spots in the points, but he still has, again with two races remaining, one of the wild card spots based on his win at Sonoma.

Kurt Busch had a horrible and costly night. Things sure didn’t start off that bad. He was on the outside pole. He led 54 laps but then came issues with the right rear hub that forced him into a 31st- place finish some 24 laps down.

The bigger hit was in the points. He dropped three positions. He’s out of the top 10 now in 12th spot but he doesn’t have a win. His Chase chances are now pretty doubtful and that’s too bad. What he has done with that single-car operation based in Colorado this year has been unprecedented.

His Chase dream isn’t completely shattered. He and his team’s back are literally up against the wall. There are only two races left and Kurt’s going to have to win one of those to hope to get one of the two wild-card spots currently held by Martin and Ryan Newman.

Poor Denny Hamlin continues to have bad luck. These are one of these seasons you just write off and start again in fresh in 2014. Of course Bristol was the first race that Mark Martin has taken over for Tony Stewart in the No. 14. I really didn’t expect a lot from them Saturday night. There simply wasn’t enough time for both sides to work together and build some chemistry.

Mark knows how he wants his race car to feel and that only comes with giving the team time to get that for him. Saturday night he brought the car home in 20th, which I can promise you is not where they wanted to be. Look for better performance down the road from this new combination and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see Mark get them a win before the season is over.

What a huge crowd at Bristol and the racing didn’t disappoint. Actually it’s one of the biggest crowds I’ve seen at Bristol in a long, long time. That’s good for everyone involved. I thought Goodyear did an outstanding job with the tire combination they brought last weekend.

I hope you all got a chance to tune-in in time to watch the Motor Racing Outreach kids sing the National Anthem. Nobody does it better all season long in my book than the MRO kids at the Bristol night race. Miss Melanie does such a great job with those kids whose parents are drivers and crew chiefs. So congratulations to them. It’s such a cool, cool deal.

So we’re off to Atlanta for the Labor Day weekend. There is so much on the line for a lot of these teams with only two races to go until the Chase field is set. Drivers like Kurt Busch who I mentioned earlier are one of many whose back is against the wall. They have to win if they hope to have a shot at making the Chase and a run for the championship.

The tension and drama of who is in and almost as importantly, who is out is greater than it’s ever been. Desperate times call for desperate measures and that’s exactly what I expect to see in Atlanta and then next weekend at Richmond.

Tagged: Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Brian Vickers, Brad Keselowski

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