4 keys to Matt Kenseth’s first victory of the season

Matt Kenseth overcame a season of rotten luck, a track full of wrecked race cars and two of NASCAR’s hardest charging young lions to win a thrilling and chaotic AAA 400 Drive For Autism at Dover International Speedway

It was a crazy and unpredictable afternoon of racing at Dover in a race that was in doubt until the very end, as Kenseth narrowly held off Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott to win his first race of the year. 

Matt Kenseth holds off Kyle Larson to win AAA 400 at Dover

In the process Kenseth gave Joe Gibbs Racing its seventh victory in 12 races this season and in the process all but locked himself into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with teammates Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin, all race winners in 2016.

The Wisconsin driver won his 37th career race and became the seventh different winner in as many races. He took the checkered flag just 0.187 seconds ahead of Larson, with Elliott third. Kasey Kahne, Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate was fourth, followed by Kurt Busch.

Here are four keys that determined the outcome at the Monster Mile. 

IT’S THE PITS — Pole-sitter Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet was clearly the class of the field early on, as he led all but 4 of the first 100 laps. But despite having the highly advantageous No. 1 pit stall, Harvick consistent lost spots on his pit stops, which first cost him the lead, then ultimately the race. 

Transmission issues for Jimmie Johnson create huge pileup on restart

And once he lost the lead, Harvick had a hard time getting it back. In fact, after leading 116 of the first 120 laps, Harvick led only 1 of the final 280 laps.

Yes, the new aero package is better this year — much better, in fact — but the leader still has a huge aerodynamic  advantage. As good as Harvick’s car was in clean air, once he was back in traffic, it was merely ordinary.

HARD KNOCKS — On Lap 283, Brad Keselowski was running in second place when he came off of Turn 2 and ran into the back of Austin Dillon, who had clipped the wall and was running slowly, The contact took the right-front fender of Keselowski’s Team Penske Ford off. 

Although a Lap-290 caution allowed the team to make repairs, Keselowski’s damaged car was unable to challenge for the win afterwards. The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champ led 49 laps on the afternoon and appeared to be in contention for the win before the crash. 

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Carl Edwards, Kenseth’s teammate, was in contention at the end, too, but he got loose and hit by Larson, and went head on into the backstretch SAFER barrier.

GEAR-JAMMER BLUES — With 47 laps to go, something broke in the transmission of Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet as he came to take the green-flag during a restart. Johnson said his transmission wouldn’t shift from second to third gear and he was just stuck.

Behind Johnson, 17 other cars crashed in a wreck that took out or seriously damaged several contending cars including Johnson, Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. The fact that Kenseth narrowly avoided the mayhem was critical in him making it to Victory Lane. 

GO TIME — In the closing laps, Kenseth showed why he has a past Sprint Cup champion and one of the sport’s elite drivers. Lap after lap after lap at the end, Larson and Elliott applied intense pressure on Kenseth to get by, but the veteran kept his composure and was able to fend off the two young lions.

It was a truly impressive display of driving and the kind of performance you see from the best of the best. And it’s why Kenseth year in and year out is a frequent race winner and championship contender.