SPARTA, Ky. — Matt Kenseth has raced long enough to know that rough starts can still have good outcomes.
Especially when his crew chief takes chances.
Case in point was Kenseth’s fuel-only pit stop gamble that helped him beat Jimmie Johnson late to win the rescheduled 400-mile NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Sunday at Kentucky Speedway.
A race that was Johnson’s to lose ultimately became Kenseth’s series-high fourth victory of the season – and third on a 1.5-mile track – after crew chief Jason Ratcliff passed on putting new tires on the No. 20 Toyota following the race’s ninth caution.
“I thought he was slightly crazy when that happened,” said Kenseth, who widened his lead when the field went four-wide after the restart on lap 246 and saw Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy spin from second place on a day he led three times for 182 of 267 laps.
“I didn’t think there was any way that we were going to hold on for that win. He made the right call at the right time and those guys got it done.”
Kenseth led twice for 38 laps, including the final 23. Johnson, the five-time champion and series points leader, finished ninth and leads Carl Edwards by 38.
The restart bothered Johnson, who accused Kenseth of breaking the pace car speed. But Johnson took solace in salvaging his 11th top-10 despite between sandwiched in the logjam that could have been worse.
“We were kind of in an awkward situation in that restart there,” he said. “We were like three- and four-wide going in the corner, then something happened with the air and just kind of turned me around. Unfortunate, but at least we rallied back for a good finish.”
Second was Jamie McMurray in a Chevy, followed by Clint Bowyer (Toyota), Joey Logano (Ford) and Kyle Busch (Toyota).
Rain Saturday night forced NASCAR officials to postpone the race to a daytime start.
The event was red-flagged for 18 minutes following a seven-car wreck involving defending race and Sprint Cup winner Brad Keselowski, who returned to finish 33rd. It was the biggest incident of 10 cautions for 42 laps, but things were clean after Johnson brought out the final yellow flag.
The checkered flag crowned Kentucky’s third different champion in as many events though Kenseth, like Johnson, was due for a breakthrough on the 1.5-mile oval.
He finished seventh here last year and sixth in the 2011 inaugural race. However, victory didn’t seem likely for the 2003 Cup champion after qualifying 16th and running outside the top 20 during the first quarter of the event.
“I thought our first run, we were all right and I guess probably after the second run, we were able to move forward pretty good,” Kenseth said. “I felt pretty good about what we had. I thought we need to get it better.”
From then on, the first-year Joe Gibbs Racing driver was a perennial top-five contender. Trouble was, he and other hopefuls seemed to need Johnson to suffer misfortune to have any shot of catching him. The way he was running, that appeared unlikely.
Turns out, Kenseth needed to rely on the left-side tires Ratcliff ordered the previous stop. Taking fuel only the final time allowed him to gain the lead coming off pit road, and the rubber held up on the rough, bumpy track, both on the restart and through the final laps.
Ratcliff was shocked that more teams didn’t follow suit with that strategy.
“I felt like more guys would make that call, and so I thought it was worth a shot to get out there,” the crew chief said. “When we rolled off pit road and saw what everybody did, I looked to the guy beside me and I’m like, ‘I can’t believe we are the only ones that did that.’”
The decision led to a surprising late turn of events, and the tense finish in which McMurray and Bowyer took turns trying to chase down Kenseth provided a nice makeup after Saturday night’s washout.
In a season of struggles, McMurray was just happy with his first top five.
“Every week it’s been something,” he said, “so it’s nice to have some good luck.”
Bowyer remained third in points and gave Michael Waltrip Racing its second straight top-two run following teammate Martin Truex Jr.’s road win last week in Sonoma, Calif.
Johnson was a favorite after strong practices and a third-place qualifying run, and he quickly picked up where he left off to become the story on Sunday with the best car after several early lead changes.
The race’s biggest incident came on lap 49 when Kurt Busch spun out Keselowski near turn 1, triggering an accident that red-flagged the race. Greg Biffle slammed into Keselowski, lifting his car off the asphalt and leaving both Fords mangled.
Somehow, both returned to finish 33rd and 34th respectively.
But at the time of the wreck Johnson had already taken his first lead of the race and appeared headed to a walkover victory before Ratcliff’s risk resulted in Kenseth’s reward.
“With everything being equal, I still thought we were a second-place car when we were at our best,” Kenseth said. “There were times when we ran a little better than (Johnson) but I don’t know what he was doing up front, if he was saving fuel or what. We still had an excellent car.”