For the second straight week, in the second race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Matt Kenseth led Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch to the finish line — and for Kenseth, who has struggled at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, that added a dreamlike quality to the victory.
The top seed in the Chase, Kenseth won Sunday's Sylvania 300 by .533 seconds over Busch as JGR asserted its superiority for the second consecutive week. A half hour after the race ended, the magnitude of the victory was still sinking in for the 2003 Sprint Cup champion.
"For me to win at New Hampshire, first of all, is more than a stretch and more than a dream," Kenseth said. "This is probably one of my worst places. That just shows you how good this whole team is. ... I didn't even know there was a Victory Lane here.
"I felt really confident with my car today, but to have a fast car and to be able to do all the right things with adjustments and strategy and pit stops and all that stuff and be out front and win is two different things. So I'm thankful to be part of this group, and it honestly doesn't really seem real that we won yet today."
Kenseth led a race-high 106 laps in winning for the seventh time this season, for the first time at the Magic Mile and for the 31st time in his career. Winning in his 500th start in the Sprint Cup series, Kenseth extended his Chase lead to 14 points over Busch.
Greg Biffle drove from sixth to third after the final restart on Lap 258 of 300. Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson finished fourth, followed by Jamie McMurray and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Though Busch closed on Kenseth in traffic late in the race, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota acknowledged that his teammate had the superior car.
"Certainly, we were never as fast this weekend as the 20 (Kenseth) was," Busch said. "They just had a special car. Sometimes you unload with them, and they're just phenomenal. The 20 had that here this weekend. We tried everything to try to keep up with him and to get pace with him, but it was tough to do."
Kasey Kahne saw his Chase hopes dim when he spun on the front stretch on Lap 252 and nosed into the inside wall. Kahne came home 37th and fell to 13th in the standings, 71 points behind Kenseth and all but out of the running for the championship.
Brian Vickers, the July winner at the 1.058-mile track, started in the rear and finished seventh. Vickers was racing in the Nationwide Series at Kentucky Speedway and enlisted Kenny Wallace to practice and qualify his Sprint Cup car on Friday. Because of the driver change, Vickers had to drop to the back of the field for the start.
Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr. completed the top 10. Truex led 98 laps but fell back during the final 43-lap green-flag run.
"We had a good car the first half of the race, and then the second half, we just started getting tight," said Truex, whose sponsor NAPA announced Thursday it was leaving Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of the season in the wake of penalties to the organization for attempting to manipulate the outcome of the Richmond race two weeks ago.
"It was cooling off and clouding up. We just could never get it turning again. Then that last set of tires was just terrible for us—just couldn't do anything with it. It's unfortunate. The guys did a good job all weekend. We struggled here the last few times and obviously made some huge gains in the right direction—just weren't good enough to be there when it counted."
Notes: Kenseth ran a special paint scheme commemorating his 500th start. The only other driver to win in his 500th Cup start was Richard Petty in 1970. ... Johnson is third in the standings, 18 points behind Kenseth and the only driver other than Busch with 36 points of the leader. ... Kenseth is the third driver to win the first two races in the Chase. Tony Stewart accomplished the feat in 2011 en route to his third title. Greg Biffle won the first two Chase races in 2008 and finished third in the final standings.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 107.573 mph.
Time of Race: 2 Hrs, 57 Mins, 02 Secs. Margin of Victory: 0.533 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 7 for 37 laps.
Lead Changes: 19 among 11 drivers.
Pit stop slide hurts Gordon's race, title aspirations
LOUDON, N.H. – Jeff Gordon was kicking himself.
The four-time Sprint Cup champion had just led 36 laps on Sunday's Sylvania 300 and was looking to put a major dent in Matt Kenseth's series lead when he made a rookie mistake.
Two-thirds of the way into the race, he overslid his pit stall.
Not by a lot – perhaps by the length of his front splitter – but enough to get the attention of the NASCAR official, who ordered him to put his No. 24 Chevy in reverse before his crew could proceed.
Instead of leading the race, Gordon was suddenly 22nd, on his way to a 15th-place finish which dropped him to eighth in the Chase standings, 42 points behind Kenseth.
"I'm highly disappointed in myself," Gordon said. "I hadn't come close to sliding through all day. I guess, leading, I carried a little bit more speed in there and crossed the splitter over the line by an inch.
"I knew it was close. When I got in there, the front started to slide. I was hoping it would stop just at the line. I saw the official react and I knew we were in trouble. That's all it takes to make a difference between a chance at winning and finishing 15th."
On a track where passing can be difficult at best, losing so many spots of track position doomed the 24 team.
"I knew, just from the way the race was going, that passing was near impossible," Gordon said. "And my car was a good race car but wasn't a good 'passing' car. We had the handling characteristics of a car that needed good track position – and we had it until I messed it up."
Gordon wasn't assuming he would have gone on to win the race, but fully expected to contend after taking four tires with 98 laps to run."That caution hurt us in general," he said. "We didn't need that caution to come when it did. That was taking us out of sync for what was going to work best for our pit strategy, anyway. But there's a big difference between starting say 12th and 22nd. We lost a lot of spots to the other guys who took four tires."
If there is a silver lining for Gordon, it's that his car was strong enough to contend for the second time in as many Chase races. Gordon finished sixth in the first race of the Chase at Chicagoland.
"I'm excited with the way we're performing," he said. "Chicago was great and this weekend was great. We're not far out of fourth (six points behind Carl Edwards). We lost quite a bit of ground to those guys up front, but not too much as far as getting into the top five in points. I think we are very capable of doing that.
"But the driver can't make mistakes. Today was one of those days. This is a short race. Track position is so important. I made a crucial mistake and I can't allow that to happen if we're going to get ourselves into the top five in points."
Maybe it just wasn't Hendrick Motorsports' day on pit road. During the first caution of the day, Gordon needed to take evasive action to avoid a major collision with David Ragan.
Escaping with only a scuff, Gordon, who started third, remained in the top five for nearly all of the first 200 laps.
His teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., also had trouble on an early pit stop when his crew dropped his jack too soon. Earnhardt recovered to lead 17 laps, but found himself off cycle with the leaders and settled for sixth place.
"I was real happy to be able to rebound from our earlier (miscue) on pit road and get a good finish," Earnhardt said. "The car was fast as heck (in practice) – one of the top three cars, I thought."
Unlike Earnhardt, already 62 points behind the Chaseleading Kenseth, Gordon remains on the edge of Chase contention – albeit a thin edge.
"If Kenseth keeps doing what he's doing, it's not going to matter what anybody else does," Gordon said. "We've got to go to these next several races and go on a tear. Who knows? We're higher in points than we were when we started this thing, so we'll just try to keep that going."
Gordon says that shaking off his error and regrouping for the third race of the Chase at Dover International Raceway won't be a challenge.
"I've been doing this for 20-some years, man. It's not like I've never made mistakes before. You just hate to make them at a crucial time like that. I'll be disappointed until we get to Dover and start working on (that race)."
Contributed by Seth Livingstone special to the NASCAR Wire Service.