With fuel running dangerously low, Matt Kenseth was still able to hold off a furious attack in the final 15 laps from Kasey Kahne to win the Irwin Tools Night Race tonight at Bristol Motor Speedway, earning his fifth Sprint Cup victory of the season.
Kenseth had taken the lead following a short red-flag period that ensued after an eight-car pileup on Lap 446, which took out Chase hopeful Martin Truex Jr. and also involved Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.
But as the laps wound down, Kenseth would find himself trying to turn back Kahne, who won at Bristol earlier this spring. With 13 laps to go, Kahne made a big run on the inside of Kenseth while in the middle of lapped traffic and took the lead momentarily, only to have Kenseth surge back ahead on the top groove.
Throughout the weekend, the high line was the strongest one at Bristol and it proved so again in the closing circuits. Kahne on the low line was constantly closing up to Kenseth but could not make the race-winning pass.
On the final lap, Kahne appeared to try and bump Kenseth out of the way going into Turn 4 but couldn’t put it together, leaving Kenseth to take the checkered flag after a dramatic late-race duel.
“I think Kasey is getting tired of battling me,” Kenseth said to ESPN in Victory Lane. “We’ve finished first and second a few times this year, and I know he wanted it bad. We raced as hard as we could race. We used every inch of race track and I had just enough to hold on to it – just enough fuel, just enough tires.”
Kahne, who has had his fair share of recent history with Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, was left frustrated.
“I was trying to get there – I would’ve wrecked probably both of us,” he said. “I just tried to pass him as clean as I could and race him as hard as I could. I thought I had him at one point. I got a good run, tried to slide across him and he just kept position. We were rubbing all the way down Turn 4 and I didn’t clear him.
“I’m upset with myself for not figuring out how to win tonight, because I clearly had the better car at the end of the race.”
As expected, Bristol shook up the Chase picture considerably. The big movers standings-wise were Kahne (two wins), Greg Biffle (one win) and Joey Logano (one win), who all managed to either race into or move further up the Top 10 of the Cup championship.
But multiple others weren’t so lucky. Keselowski, who was relegated to a 30th place finish on Saturday night, dropped to 11th in the standings, while Kurt Busch’s costly wheel issues knocked him to 12th on the table. Truex still has his Wild Card spot but fell two spots to 14th, with Ryan Newman now inhabiting the second Wild Card position.
Also finding trouble was Jimmie Johnson, who finished 36th on Saturday after being collected in a wreck that saw him run into the back of a sliding David Reutimann.
With two regular season races to go, Johnson’s once-sizable lead in the championship is now down to 18 markers over Clint Bowyer, who finished 14th.
Juan Pablo Montoya had a strong outing tonight, finishing third ahead of Brian Vickers in fourth and Logano in fifth.