Matt Kenseth didn’t want to make an early call on Saturday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Despite posting the second-best time in Happy Hour, he didn’t want to discuss what it might mean to notch a victory in his 500th career Cup start on Sunday.
Nor did Kenseth want to speculate what a win at the Magic Mile could mean to his Chase for the Sprint Cup hopes. Since Kenseth had never won here, he had “more anxiety” and considered himself “the weak link” on the Joe Gibbs Racing team entering the weekend.
But by earning his 31st career Cup win on Sunday, Kenseth surprised himself.
“This is more than a dream come true,” said Kenseth, who became the first driver since Richard Petty in 1970 to notch a victory in his 500th Cup start. “Man, I’m usually a semi-feature car here. . . . It just honestly doesn’t seem real that we won yet today.”
Kenseth led four times for a career-best 106 laps at the track. When he took the lead for the fourth time, on Lap 247 from Jimmie Johnson, he didn’t give it up. Despite a late-race challenge by Kyle Busch, Kenseth held off his teammate by 0.533 seconds at the finish and extended his points lead over the No. 18 Toyota by 14. Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top five.
What a magical season it has been for the 41-year-old Cambridge, Wis., native. Earlier this season at Las Vegas, Kenseth became just the third driver in NASCAR history to win on his birthday. On a personal note, Kenseth’s seventh victory this year is a career high for wins in a season. And chances are the winning isn’t over.
“Matt is just executing the end of the deal, which is what you’re supposed to do,” Busch said. “He’s one of the best. That’s why we went to talk to him, to hire him, and that’s why he’s here.
“He’s put it all together. I think JGR has got really good stuff and Matt has been able to run really good in it. I think (crew chief) Jason Ratcliff is really smart and they’re doing a good job together.”
Despite the mutual admiration between Busch and Kenseth, the former champion’s strongest competition for the title could come from his own teammate. For the past two races, Kenseth and Busch have finished first and second. For Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth said with a laugh, “Man, what a terrible problem to have, huh?”
But, seriously, with the teammates’ intimate understanding of JGR’s resources, each driver understands what he’s up against.
“Whenever you race against Kyle, you’re always concerned because there’s nobody better at it,” Kenseth said. “There’s a couple of times where I would slip up and he would start not doing the things that I was doing to get me where I was at and I would start over-driving it and miss a corner a couple of times and messing with lapped cars.
“Every time I did that, he was immediately there. And I knew if I made any mistakes on the last three laps, he was going to pounce and be right there.”
Busch doesn’t plan on changing his strategy down the stretch. While his equipment will be equal to Kenseth’s, Busch believes the only way to get the upper hand will be through communication with the team.
“Those are certainly the ways that you win these things,” Busch said. “That’s how you build speed is getting your car better all through the weekend.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s your teammate or anybody else. You’ve still go to work hard and persevere. It’s eight more weeks.”
Ratcliff agrees “there’s a lot of racing left.” But after winning the first two races of the Chase, momentum is on the No. 20 team’s side. Two weeks ago, the crew chief took his driver to lunch and the pair discussed their strategy for the Chase. While he knows “there’s a lot of fierce competitors out there that can jump out at any given week,” Ratcliff believes the best approach is to stay the course.
“It’s been pretty successful so far this season, so we don’t have to do anything different,” Ratcliff said. ”We don’t need to do anything different; we don’t need to do anything new. And the guys have done a real good job of doing that, of paying attention to details and executing at the shop as well as the racetrack. And we’re going to continue to do that.
“The last couple of weeks, we’ve proven that we can go out and compete and do what it takes to win a championship.”
Kenseth remains a pragmatist. He wants to take the Chase “one race at a time” because he knows that one bad race can quickly mire a team in the points standings. But Kenseth also has “a lot of confidence” entering the next three races — Dover, where he has two wins and led 29 laps in June before his engine failure; Kansas, where he won from the pole in April; and Charlotte, where he has two wins and led 112 laps in May.
“There’s really not a track I’m not looking forward to going to, to be honest with you," he said. "You’re never sure what you’re going to have until you get there.
“It’s been the best season of my year, by far, and I hope we can keep it rolling.”
With a sixth-place finish at New Hampshire, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made a solid comeback after his engine failed in the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway last weekend.
Earnhardt entered the second Chase race 13th in the points standings, with a 53-point deficit behind leader Kenseth. Despite an issue with the jack in the pits on the first stop during the competition caution on Lap 30, Earnhardt fought back from restarting 33rd and took the lead 79 laps later.
Although the team was forced to make a green-flag stop and fell off the lead lap on Lap 130, a two-tire stop 39 laps later vaulted Earnhardt to second place. He dropped back to fifth on the Lap 206 restart and in the closing laps, ran “out of rear tires trying to hold (Jamie McMurray) off” to maintain fifth place.
“Couldn’t get the power down just off the corner, and he was a pretty fast car to begin with,” Earnhardt said. “I knew it was going to be difficult to hold him off, but we had a good car yesterday. Almost as good as it was today.
“Just real happy to be able to rebound from earlier on pit road and get a good finish. The car was fast as heck yesterday, one of the top three cars I thought. Glad we were able to get a decent finish out of it. Just want to win one, I’m trying hard.”
Earnhardt moved up to 10th in the points standings. He now trails Kenseth by 62.
Kasey Kahne was the only driver among the top 13 to take a hit in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Kahne was punted by Jeff Burton on Lap 262 and destroyed the left front of his car on the front stretch wall.
“I don’t really know what happened,” Kahne said. “Just racing, and I’m not sure if there was contact or if I just spun. I seriously don’t remember how it happened.”
Remarkably, Kahne returned to action with 25 laps remaining in the race, 22 circuits off of the pace in 37th. Despite soldiering to the finish, Kahne was unable to pick up any positions and finished 37th. Kahne dropped to 13th in the standings and now trails Kenseth by 71 points.
Congrats @mattkenseth. Careful though, you keep winning like this and they’ll start booing you.
3: Times in the Chase that a driver has won the first two races, as Kenseth has in 2013. Greg Biffle accomplished the task in 2008, Tony Stewart in 2011.
12: Different drivers have won at New Hampshire in the past 12 races.
13: Wins for Toyota in the Sprint Cup Series in 2013 — a season best for the manufacturer.
21: Positions lost by Jeff Gordon in the pits during the fifth caution. Gordon overshot his pit and had to back up before service could begin. Gordon fought back to finish 15th.
Biffle graciously declined comment on former Roush Fenway Racing teammate Kenseth’s success since moving to Joe Gibbs Racing other than to say, “I’m just happy for Matt that he’s able to do what he’s doing. I’m just going to leave it at that.”