With a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship and 21 career wins, it seems ridiculous that Matt Kenseth still has to audition.
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Without a sponsor for next season, though, the 39-year-old racer was wheeling the No. 17 Fluidmaster Ford for all it was worth on Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
No, Kenseth doesn’t have a 2012 sponsor — yet. But he does have team owner Jack Roush’s guarantee that a ride will be waiting for him. That offers Kenseth the luxury to do what he does best — race.
And he wasn’t going to let the opportunity for another win go down the drain.
Kenseth led early in Saturday night’s Bank of America 500, but lost significant position when he was among a group that pitted for four tires while others went with two. After that, he charged through the field in a run that led him to exclaim over the radio, “I have to breathe here for a lap. Holy crap!”
But it was the field that needed to catch its breath. After the team pitted early, Kenseth was able to remain toward the front of the pack, reeled Kyle Busch in with 25 laps remaining in the race and held the point through the final two cautions.
Busch finished second, followed by Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne and Marcos Ambrose.
With Kenseth’s win, his third of the season, he moved to third in the standings, seven points behind Edwards.
But Edwards fully understands how lethal his Roush Fenway Racing teammate can be. Had Kenseth not run out of fuel at Chicagoland Speedway in the first of the Chase for the Sprint Cup races and finished 21st, he’d likely be leading the points.
“He’s the only one of the three of us that’s got a championship,” Edwards said of himself and Busch. “He’s doing really well and tonight that car was really fast and he drove it really well. I spent a lot of time behind him. He was wheeling it. So I don’t think you can count him out (of the title run) at all."
“You can never count (him) out,” Busch said. “It seems like those Wisconsin guys are awfully quiet most of the time. You know, maybe that’s just a part of it. They will squeak it out there at the end, and leave you in the dust.”
Busch should know by now, it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for. Kenseth has never been flashy. He conserves his equipment and is traditionally there at the end. When Kenseth won his lone title in 2003, he had just one win but 11 top fives and 25 top-10 finishes. He killed the field with consistency.
And if Edwards and Busch aren’t careful, Kenseth could to the same over the next five races.
“It doesn’t really matter to me that much, what everybody thinks, we are in it or out of it or whatever,” Kenseth said. “What’s important to me is trying to win races, trying to be competitive to go do the best job we can do every week. I don’t really care about Wii dance-offs (referring to teammates Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) or how much coverage you get for doing certain things or somebody wants to say I’m boring or whatever. I was hired to try to go win races and try to run good and that’s what I try to do every week.”
Kenseth offers no apologies for that stance.
“I take my job real serious when I’m at the racetrack, (crew chief) Jimmy (Fennig) and I and all the guys work as hard as we can on the common goal of trying to be the best and trying to win and try to run for a championship," Kenseth said. "And that’s who we are at the racetrack.”
And come November, the No. 17 team could be champion again.
No love lost
The feud between Edwards and Kyle Busch escalated on Saturday night.
While the pair battled ferociously in Friday night’s Nationwide Series race, with Edwards emerging as the victor, Busch put the block on Edwards’ No. 99 Ford in the closing laps of the Sprint Cup Bank of America 500 Saturday. Busch finished second and Edwards hung on to third place in the race.
Edwards did not take kindly to Busch’s driving style and made a point to tell the driver of the No. 18 Toyota following the race.
“We should definitely be racing each other hard,” Edwards said. “It’s just that there’s a difference between racing hard and then cutting across the guy’s nose.
“What I told Kyle is I just wonder why coming off of Turn 2 when I got underneath him that he drove down instead of going up to the wall like we would normally do. And I just let him know that next time that happens, I’ll just stay where I’m at and he can drive across my hood and wreck himself.
“It just surprised me. Now he told me that he didn’t mean to do it, and so I’ve got to believe that, but I don’t know what else there is to say about it. Just it’s racing, and we didn’t wreck, and we are going to race hard like that; that’s just how I saw it.”
Edwards’ feathers weren’t the only ones ruffled by Busch on Saturday night. He knocked Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of position to gain 14th place early in the race.
“I can’t believe he did that,” Earnhardt replied.
But Busch was on a mission after starting from the rear of the field due to an engine change at the start of the race. During pit stops, Busch led Lap 125. With adjustments to his car, Busch was able to maintain a spot in the top 10 by Lap 130. A two-tire pit stop 18 laps later elevated Busch from seventh to second. His best run began on Lap 200 and he led the next 110 circuits, but once Kenseth passed Busch on Lap 309, it was game on for position.
Busch characterized the incident with Edwards as just “tight racing.”
“Carl got a good run through the turn and got up to my left rear quarterpanel and, typically, that gets you a little loose,” Busch said. “And my car got loose, and it started moving out a little bit and I just held the wheel straight and it was essentially staying — steering almost downhill.
“It did not get sideways like really loose, loose, that I about wrecked. It just started steering and kind of free-wheeling, so I just let it go. I ran him a little tight. Essentially it made me run him a little tight out there on (Turn) 2 and I just hugged on his door down the stretch to kind of side-draft him to keep him alongside of me to give me another chance at redeeming myself through (Turns) 3 and 4 and getting back by him and it worked out.
“There was no malicious intent involved to cause anything or to hurt his chances at finishing second or anything. So it was just a product of what we had at the end going for everything we could, and trying to come home second.”
For Busch, second is the first loser. But the finish was also his best since winning at Michigan International Speedway in August, nine races ago, and vaulted the No. 18 team from eighth to fourth in the points standings. Busch now trails Edwards by 18 points.
However, Busch could not hide his disappointment in being the runnerup two nights in a row.
“We drove up through the field and we got in position to win the race and was leading much of the majority of the end there,” Busch said. “Just got outdrove there by Kenseth there on the restart there. He just flat-out drove right past me like I was standing still.
“The frustration is, again, we did not finish where we wanted to, which could have been a real win, a real highlight. The next frustration is we have yet to win a Chase race, and I’m sure I’ll be hearing about that for the next four years if I continue that. But, you know, we’ll keep working on it, and going into next week at Talladega and see if we can’t get one there."
Feel your pain
Greg Biffle had the dominant car early at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday night.
He led twice for a total of 68 laps, but when his pit crew missed a lugnut during green-flag stops on Lap 124, NASCAR penalized the driver. Biffle returned to the pits on Lap 127, dropping from first before the start to 28th, one lap down.
Biffle returned to the lead lap as the beneficiary on Lap 288 and soldiered back to finish 15th.
Trevor Bayne also had a solid top-10 run going for the first 237 laps until he ran out of gas. Bayne dropped from seventh to 32nd after a safety truck pushed him to the pits for fuel. Bayne finished 31st, five laps down at the finish.
2: DNF’s for Jimmie Johnson at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2011.
3: Consecutive top-five finishes for Kasey Kahne in the last three races.
4: Fords that finished in the top seven in the Bank of America 500
11: Years between wins for Kenseth at Charlotte Motor Speedway
Before the second caution on Saturday night, Kenseth was nearly caught up in a wreck between the lapped cars of Hermie Sadler and Bobby Labonte. Kenseth quipped, “I hope Virginia is for lovers (referring to Emporia, Va.-native Sadler), because this is ridiculous.”