BRISTOL, Tenn. — As the laps wound down at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night, Matt Kenseth didn’t give an inch and Kasey Kahne couldn’t bring himself to take one.
Kenseth recovered from a pit road speeding penalty that sent him from the lead to the back of the lead lap just after the midway point of the IRWIN Tools Night Race to score his fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup win of the season, putting him in position to claim the top seed in the Chase.
“I think Kasey’s getting tired of battling me,” Kenseth said. “I used every inch of racetrack and had just enough fuel and just enough tires. I made a mistake on pit road (on lap 259), and we were able to overcome that.
“I hope we’re back. We led a lot of laps early this year, last month and a half, not that great.”
It took a savvy blend of pit strategy and steady driving to get Kenseth back to the front of the pack in the final 100 laps. Once there, he held off Kahne, who had fresher tires and a faster race car, in a thrilling duel that kept the fans on their feet for the final 10 laps.
“I’m upset at myself about not finding a way to win tonight because I clearly had a better car,” Kahne said. “I thought Matt did a good job of running as hard as he could right up against the wall, which helped him a lot. I just couldn’t clear him.”
Kahne said afterward that he had the option of taking out Kenseth after a few attempts at passing him cleanly didn’t pan out. Many expected Kahne to take out Kenseth after an incident between the drivers at Watkins Glen earlier this month, but Kahne said it was against his code.
“You know, I’ve always really raced that way,” Kahne said. “I think more than anything it’s just discouraging when other guys, like Matt in his case at Watkins Glen, watching that afterwards, all he had to do was lift, and he didn’t because he didn’t want to get passed from behind or whatever.
“It wasn’t a mistake like he got loose or anything; he just didn’t lift and wiped us out, and those kind of things are discouraging because that’s not how I race.”
Kenseth said he appreciated the way Kahne raced him Saturday, adding that the drivers have raced each other clean for the most part during their careers. But at the end of the day, Kenseth said, Kahne wasn’t his concern.
“I only drive the 20, so I’m only responsible for what happens with that,” he said. “I think this whole thing is getting blown way out of proportion. I’ve never purposely wrecked Kasey. Sure, you can say it was my fault, but it’s not like Kasey and I have this big history together.”
Redemption was a major storyline in the race. Several drivers who suffered misfortune rebounded to score strong finishes.
Like Kenseth, Juan Pablo Montoya was busted for speeding through the pits at a time when he was running second. He recovered from that miscue, as well as contact with David Stremme on lap 375, to finish third.
“I got caught speeding there with like 170 to go or something, and that kind of hurt us,” Montoya said. “But I’ll tell the truth, it probably helped us because if it would have played out right, we probably would have run out of gas. Our fuel mileage wasn’t as good as the 20.”
Brian Vickers was struggling to stay inside the top 30 early in the race, but he also bounced back to finish fourth in what may have been Rodney Childers’ final race as a crew chief at Michael Waltrip Racing. Childress announced earlier in the week that he will be moving to Stewart-Haas Racing next season.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” Vickers said. “We were way, way too tight at the start of this race. The guys made a lot of good calls in this race.”
Joey Logano and Kyle Busch both received damage after getting together just after lap 100, but each driver managed to recover. Logano finished fifth and Busch was 11th after starting last.
“That was the hardest fought top five I’ve ever had in my life,” Logano said. “We came from the back three times to get a top-five finish.”
Many drivers were able to bounce back from difficulties, but others weren’t so lucky on a night when the caution flag waved 11 times.
Jimmie Johnson got caught in a wreck that damaged his radiator, relegating the series points leader to a 36th-place finish one week after a blown engine left him with a DNF.
Carl Edwards, who led 119 laps, blew an engine to give Roush Fenway Racing its first DNF of the season. He ended up 39th.
“The car was almost perfect and the engine ran awesome until it broke,” Edwards said.
Two more drivers, Kenseth and Clint Bowyer, clinched a spot in the Chase on Saturday. Meanwhile, Brad Keselowski, the defending Cup champion, went in the wrong direction. Keselowski’s 30th-place finish — the result of a multicar accident — dropped him to the outside of the Chase looking in.
“Obviously today was not a great day for us,” he said. “I feel like this is going to come down to the last lap at Richmond and I’m ready for that battle.”