By Jerry Bonkowski
CONCORD, N.C. – Matt Kenseth got a great jump on the final restart and had just enough muscle under the hood of his Ford to hold off a hard-charging Kyle Busch in the final laps to win the Bank of America 500 Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"It's about time we won this thing," Kenseth said after the race. "I can't believe we won again at Charlotte. It only took us 11 years (since his last Cup win on the 1.5-mile race track).
"It was a good race. I had fun racing with Kyle there. It was tough to get by him. I was glad we could be able to get by him because it was challenging."
With his third win and 18th top-10 finish this season, the 2003 Cup champion moved up two places in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings to third-place, just seven points behind series leader Carl Edwards.
"Restarts have not been my specialty lately," Kenseth said. "I've done an extremely poor job on that. I knew we had a shot to win the race if we got in front of Kyle on that second-to-last restart … and then we were able to run him down. I knew we had the superior car."
Meanwhile, there was significant shuffling among several of the other Chase contenders in the rankings, as well, with eight of the 12 entrants either moving up or down.
The younger Busch brother has nothing to hang his head about, though. He started in last place, being forced to start from the back of the field due to his No. 18 Toyota requiring an engine change before the race. Being both aggressive yet smart, Busch had gained a dozen spots in less than the first 20 laps and ultimately wound up leading the most laps in the 334-lap event.
"We started deep in the field and made our way up slowly and steadily," Busch said. "You had to be creative, had to work your way up and past guys. I don't think we made a change to the car all night, just kept running it. Lo and behold, we thought we were going to win one, but then we had all these late restarts and we wound up second."
Edwards finished third in the race, followed by strong performances from Kasey Kahne and Australian driver Marcos Ambrose (5th). Sixth through 10th in the midpoint race of the Chase were Kevin Harvick, A.J. Allmendinger, Tony Stewart, David Reutimann and Ryan Newman.
"We had this one circled on the schedule that we were nervous about," Edwards said. "(Crew chief Bob Osborne) really had this dialed in. Just a good race and a lot better finish than I thought we'd have, so I'm happy with it."
Five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson went from checkers (winning last week's race) to wreckers (crashed late in the race), finishing the race 34th and dropping him five spots (third to eighth place) in the overall standings. With five races remaining and now 35 points (unofficially) behind Edwards, Johnson is in one of the deepest holes he's been in at this point in any of the last five seasons.
"He could go on a tear and win the next three or four weeks, so I never count him out," Edwards said of Johnson.
The official halfway point of the 10-race Chase, Saturday night's event served to at least partly clear up some of the murkiness of who is still in contention for the championship and who will likely just ride out the string of five races remaining this season.
Denny Hamlin, who struggled unmercifully in the first four Chase races, finished ninth but is still last in the 12-driver Chase field, 86 points behind Edwards.
Jeff Gordon, who many picked as the top challenger to win the Chase prior to its start five races ago, saw his hopes all but end, finishing 21st and leaving Charlotte in 11th-place in the standings, a dismal 66 points behind Edwards.
And Ryan Newman, who was in danger of essentially being eliminated if he had another bad finish, came up with a strong 10th-place outing that helped him move up one spot in the standings, from 11th to 10th.
But perhaps the most disappointed fans are those of the sport's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Handling issues on his No. 88 Chevrolet, plus an apparent issue on at least one pit stop, severely cost Earnhardt. He ended the race in 19th place, but on the flip side, still managed to hang on to ninth-place in the standings, albeit just one point ahead of Newman.
The Sprint Cup standings are as follows: Edwards leads Kevin Harvick by five points, Kenseth (up two places in the standings), Kyle Busch (up four spots), Tony Stewart (up two to fifth-place), Brad Keselowski (lost two spots), Kurt Busch (lost one spot), Johnson, Earnhardt, Newman, Gordon and Hamlin.
Things did not start well for three drivers, who were forced to begin the race at the back of the field due to various mechanical issues. Clint Bowyer (started in a back-up car), Kyle Busch (engine change) and Dave Blaney (transmission change).
The younger Busch brother quickly made up more than a dozen spots in the first 20 laps, but began to flounder after the first pit stop. Still, like a bad cold, he kept coming back. Alas, his hopes of finally winning a race at Charlotte were once again dashed when Kenseth proved to have a stronger car in the long run – and there was little Busch could do to catch him.
"If I keep doing that, maybe I can win one here in about four years," Busch quipped afterward, obviously upset with himself for leading the most laps yet failing to seal the deal due to Kenseth's stronger car.