Matt Kenseth holds off Kyle Larson to win AAA 400 at Dover
On a day when Miles the Monster was chewing up cars and spitting them out at a prodigious rate, Matt Kenseth survived the carnage and held on for his first win of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Dover International Speedway.
As a result, Kenseth is locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs that will determine the 2016 champion over the final 10 races of the season.
Kenseth won by holding off youngsters Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott in dramatic fashion over the final 20 laps.
"It feels great to get this one, for sure," said Kenseth, who has endured his share of bad luck over the first one-third of the season. "… We had a good car today. I thought we were competitive and there were a few guys at different parts of the race that were a little bit better. Kyle gave me all I wanted at the end, and then some."
Larson had the best shot at Kenseth in the closing laps and on several occasions appeared to be in position to complete the pass for the lead — but each time Kenseth was able to narrowly hold him off.
"I was trying to do all I could do to get by him without getting into him," Larson told FOX Sports. "I probably could have bumped him a little bit there maybe once in the middle of (Turns) 1 and 2, and maybe got away from him. But it was a lot of fun racing with Matt there."
By the end of the race, Kenseth and Larson were in a minority.
Only 14 drivers were left on the lead lap after multiple wrecks, including an 18-car mess brought about when the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports of Jimmie Johnson could not get going while leading on a restart with 46 laps to go.
Johnson was running sixth when the 10th caution of the day came out after Tony Stewart’s car suffered a broken track bar and had to limp to pit road. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus elected to gamble with a two-tire stop and gained five spots on pit road, coming out in the lead for the ensuing restart with just 46 laps to go.
Kenseth’s No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team elected to make the same gamble off pit road and came out second behind Johnson. The problem was, Johnson’s No. 48 car could not get going on the restart.
It appeared to slow when Johnson attempted to shift into third gear, and virtually the whole field stacked up behind him. Thus began a massive wreck of the type usually reserved for Talladega.
One of those involved was the No. 22 Team Penske Ford of Joey Logano.
"It’s a tough situation. We can’t see nothing, really, when you get stacked up like that on a racetrack," Logano told FOX Sports.
Johnson said he had never experienced anything like it.
"As soon as I went to second and tried to go to third … there was a long pause there where I couldn’t get in a gear, and then I was locked out completely," Johnson said. "It was locked out and wouldn’t go into gear, and then I started getting hit from behind. In my career, I’ve never had a transmission do that to me."
No sooner did the cars get back on the concrete track when another violent wreck occurred. This time, Carl Edwards appeared to get a little loose and possibly touched from behind by Larson — sending Edwards’ No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota hard into the inside wall, destroying a car that earlier had led 27 laps.
Johnson also was involved in some earlier trouble when he and Kevin Harvick, two of the pre-race favorites to win, suffered setbacks on Lap 213, but avoided what could have been far worse for both of them at the time.
The two were running in the top 10 when the engine in Reed Sorenson’s No. 55 Chevrolet appeared to let go, oiling down the track in Turn 2. Johnson hit the oil and spun his No. 48 machine while trying to avoid Sorenson’s wounded car.
Behind them, Harvick had to slam on his brakes and bring the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy to a complete stop to avoid running into Johnson.
While unpleasant, both men avoided true calamity — at least temporarily — by keeping their cars together and out of harm’s way.
Harvick restarted the race 20th, with Johnson just one spot behind, and both quickly resumed making their way back into the top 10.
Johnson was leading and Harvick was running sixth when the true calamity did finally strike for both drivers after Johnson’s car failed to get going on the restart with 46 to go.
Six drivers led 15 laps or more, including Harvick with a race-high 117, Larson (85), Brad Keselowski (49), Kenseth (48), Martin Truex Jr. (30), Carl Edwards (26) and Denny Hamlin (15).
Harvick led the first 42 before a poor pit stop handed the lead temporarily to Edwards. But Harvick appeared to be the class of the field until the incident involving Johnson and Sorenson set him back.
Harvick got back up to as high as fourth before the final incident with Johnson at last did him in. His pit crew was able to repair his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet and get it back on the track without losing a lap, although he restarted as the last car on the lead lap, in 17th.
By then, all eyes were on the trio of Kenseth, Larson and Elliott up front. First Larson and Elliott staged a spirited battle for second, and then Larson attempted to chase down Kenseth — ultimately to no avail.
Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch followed Kenseth, Larson and Elliott in the finishing order to round out the top five. However, Kahne’s car failed post-race inspection and will be brought back to the NASCAR R&D Center for further evaluation.
"It feels good to be in Victory Lane," Kenseth said. "It always feels good to win."