Matt Kenseth celebrates after winning Sunday’s caution-filled race at Kentucky Speedway.
SPARTA, Ky. — Jimmie Johnson seemed to be in total control of Sunday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, but Jason Ratcliff, crew chief for Matt Kenseth, decided to roll the dice by pitting for fuel with only 25 laps to go during the ninth yellow flag of the afternoon.
The move shocked even Kenseth, but Kenseth made it pay off by staying out front and leading the rest of the way for his fourth win of the season, his first with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Ratcliffe’s gamble vaulted Kenseth from fourth to first with Johnson coming out of the pits in second place after changing right-side tires.
Johnson, who had led 182 of the first 242 laps, got a bad restart with 22 laps to go.
Moments later, he got sideways as Joey Logano tried to get underneath him. Logano didn’t think he touched Johnson, but suddenly Johnson was spinning in front of the entire field. Somehow no one hit the spinning Johnson, who did a great job of keeping his car off the inside wall to bring out the 10th yellow flag of the afternoon.
Johnson was livid, telling his crew over the radio that NASCAR should penalize Kenseth for being too slow on the restart.
“He jammed everybody up,” exclaimed Johnson.
As leader of the race, Kenseth is in charge of the restart, and NASCAR has made it very clear that no one can pass the leader until he gets to the start-finish line.
Johnson pitted for four tires and was 22nd when the race got the green flag for the final time. He raced his way to ninth, with Kenseth holding off a fast-closing Jamie McMurray for his 28th career victory and third this season on the 1.5-mile tracks. Five of the final 10 races are on the 1.5-mile tracks.
“I knew if we could get Matt out front that he would be able to stay there,” said Ratcliffe. “I knew no tires and fuel was our only shot. This is a really special win. All four are important, but this one stands out above the rest as I gave away a couple here when I was a crew chief on the Nationwide Series.”
Kenseth made it clear who made the decision.
“Jason was the one that rolled the dice,” he said. “I thought he was crazy. I didn’t think there was any way we could hold onto the lead. But clear air makes such a difference. The 1 (McMurray) was coming, but I knew he didn’t have enough laps (after passing Clint Bowyer for second with four laps to go). This is just incredible. I might have dreamed of a season like this when I decided to move to JGR (from Roush Fenway Racing), but I never really thought we would have this kind of season so fast. We just have to keep it up.”
Bowyer finished third, followed by Logano, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Kevin Harvick.
For McMurray, it was his best finish of the season and his first top-five finish in more than 60 races.
“It was a very good day,” said McMurray. “I don’t feel like we ran significantly better today than the past 10 or 12 weeks. Today we were just able to get the finish out of it. We didn’t have any flat tires or radiators break or people’s parts fall off the car and go through our radiator. With no tires he (Kenseth) was quite a bit slower than what we were those last 10 laps. We just needed more laps or a caution. It’s nice to have some good luck. I feel really good about it.”
The 400 was supposed to have been run Saturday night, but rain showers off and on all afternoon and early evening forced NASCAR to postpone the race until Sunday at noon.
Defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski won the 400 a year ago, but any thoughts he had of repeating ended on lap 48 of the 267-lap race when he was tagged by Kurt Busch after Busch dropped to the apron to try to pass Keselowski.
“That was all my fault,” Busch told his crew, “The track just shot me back into him.”
The contact sent Keselowski spinning, and he was slammed into by Greg Biffle and Travis Kvapil. Keselowski finished 33rd to drop from 10th to 13th in the Sprint Cup standings.
Naturally, Keselowski wasn’t too pleased with Busch.
“Wreck happens, but it takes a chain of events to get there,” said Keselowski. “There is no reason to drive like an animal. There is no reason to go down there, but he still did.”
When told Busch had apologized, Keselowski said, “I know he didn’t intentionally wreck me, but the track has a really bad bump down there and we all know it. There was no reason to go down there, but he did.”
The race was red-flagged for 18 minutes to clean up the Keselowski wreck that included seven cars.
With Keselowski falling out of the top 10 and a guaranteed spot in this year’s Chase for the Championship, Logano moved into the top 10 in 10th place with his fifth top-10 finish in the last six races. He was 11th at Sonoma a week ago.
“I felt like we were good enough to win for a little bit,” said Logano. “I thought we were as good as the 20 (Kenseth) or even better. It is all about getting the clear air. It was hard to pass out there. The guys did a great job with the Shell Pennzoil Ford today. I was hoping for one more caution because I thought I was in the cat-bird seat if that happened.”
When asked about the incident with Johnson, Logano said, “I don’t think I ever touched him. I went down there three-wide and am 95 percent sure I never touched him. It was an unfortunate deal. Once he started spinning, I started checking up to not finish him off and gave him a shot to save it.”
Pole-sitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. had his victory aspirations ended a few laps earlier when Denny Hamlin had a right-front tire go flat. As Hamlin was limping back to the pits, a part of the tire flew off and hit the front of Earnhardt’s car. He was leading at the time. The shredded piece badly damaged the front splitter and part of the grill.
Earnhardt was forced to pit for repairs and was never able to get back to the front. He ended the day in 12th place.
Hamlin spent time in the infield care center after slamming hard into the fourth-turn wall on lap 148 when another right-front tire blew. He had recovered from the earlier incident and was running sixth at the time. Hamlin missed four weeks earlier in the year with a compressed fracture in his back.
Hamlin said his back “feels good. It feels the same as it did this morning (before the race). I just hit real hard and hit my knee pretty good. I am feeling much better now (as he talked to the media).”