Kenseth stymies Kahne in final laps for Bristol victory

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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.

With 200 IndyCar wins in the books, Penske looks for No. 201 at Indy

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The history of Team Penske at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a storied one that features 16 Indy 500 wins, including a pair of four-time winners in Al Unser and Rick Mears, and number of utterly dominant performances.

Yet, they’ll head to this year’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 looking to avenge a pair of relatively subpar performances in each of the last two years.

Power was the only Penske driver to finish in the Top 10 in 2016, with Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud finishing 11th and 19th after fuel strategy intervened late in the race. And last year, all the Penske cars were somewhat down on pace compared to other teams, notably the Honda cars.

Power was the only Penske driver to qualify for the Fast Nine Pole Shootout last year – he qualified ninth. Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves were 18th and 19th in the grid, while Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud were 22nd and 23rd.

And only Castroneves was in winning contention in the final laps as he battled eventual winner Takuma Sato – Montoya was sixth, while Pagenaud was 14th and the only other Penske running at the end. Both Newgarden and Power crashed out on Lap 183.

This year, however, could see a return to the dominant form we’re used to seeing from the Penske outfit. All four cars entered – Pagenaud, Power, Newgarden, and Castroneves – qualified inside the top nine, with Pagenaud and Power on the front row.

They have all been near the front of the time sheets, especially in laps without a tow from another car, and the indication is that the Penske cars may be the fastest ones in the field.

All told, it leads to very high expectations for a team that already expects highly of itself.

Leading the way for Penske is current points leader and defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden. Newgarden’s best Indy 500 finish is third in 2016, but he only has one other Top 10 there – ninth in 2015.

But, with an IndyCar title now under his belt, Newgarden has his eyes set on an Indy 500 win.

Josef Newgarden looks to add an Indy 500 crown to his 2017 championship. Photo: IndyCar

“I think Indianapolis…is certainly next on the list for me,” he detailed in a press conference ahead of qualifying. “It’s not next on the list for the team, they’ve won it many times. The good thing is we have four great opportunities, especially having Helio back. I think we have one of the best opportunities in the entire field to win this race.”

Pagenaud, like Newgarden, is also looking for his first Indy triumph, though his record there isn’t quite as good. He has been fast at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but only has two Top 10s to show for it – eighth in 2013 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and tenth in 2015 in his first year with Penske.

And a Pagenaud win would be somewhat historic – it would be only the fourth time a French driver has won the “500,” and the first since 1920 (Gaston Chevrolet).

Pagenaud explained that this race always holds a place as a top priority, and that success at Indy is all about preparation.

Simon Pagenaud looks to become only the first French driver to win an Indy 500 since Gaston Chevrolet in 1920. Photo: IndyCar

“It really is our number one goal. In Roger and Tim’s heart, it’s the most important one,” Pagenaud declared. “We prepare really hard. The team does a fantastic job at just understanding every bit and component of this new aero kit, trying to extract the best out of the equipment.”

Pagenaud added, “On the driver side, there’s a lot you can do obviously to review the past races, try to focus yourself, try to put yourself into the race before it happens, try to just improve. That’s what we try to do every day. That’s the goal. That’s why this group is so good. We push each other so hard that you always try to push the limits away.”

Power, the man who delivered Penske his 200th IndyCar win, is no stranger to success at IMS, having won the Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course three times. But, he is yet to find Victory Lane on the oval, and that leaves a void in an otherwise stellar career.

Will Power has won the INDYCAR Grand Prix three times, and looks for his first win at the “500” this weekend. Photo: IndyCar

Power spotlighted the opportunity in front of him, and detailed that running in traffic has been a strength thus far through practice.

“It’s fantastic to have that opportunity. Obviously very focused on (trying to win),” he revealed. “I feel like we have a really good opportunity to win this year. I mean, I think Chevrolet has brought a really good engine. I feel like we’re really fast. Running in traffic and such, I felt like we’ve been pretty strong, especially when you get to the front.”

Castroneves is the only Penske driver with Indy 500 wins on his resume. But, with three wins to his name, Castroneves is more than familiar with IMS glory.

Now a part-time IndyCar driver who races full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship with the Acura Team Penske outfit, Castroneves’ sole focus is on getting that elusive fourth win.

Helio Castroneves looks to join the four-time winners club at the Indy 500. Photo: IndyCar

And he has momentum on his side too, coming off a debut IMSA win for the Acura Penske outfit at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. A fourth Indy 500 win would put an exclamation point on the month for Castroneves.

“I think about it every day,” he said when asked about how often he ponders getting that fourth win. “It was one of those incredible ones, I have phenomenal car, the Pennzoil car was really strong last year. Obviously coming back here, first of all, I want to thank Roger and (team president Tim Cindric) for giving me the opportunity to be back at the Indy 500. It’s such a special place for so many people. Just to be back and able to continue our goal and pursue for the number four, it’s incredible.”

Pagenaud and Power will flank pole sitter Ed Carpenter on the front, starting second and third respectively. Newgarden starts fourth, while Castroneves will start eighth.

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