SPARTA, Ky. – Matt Kenseth’s fuel-only pit road gamble helped him beat Jimmie Johnson late and win Sunday’s rescheduled 400-mile NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway.
A race that was Johnson’s to lose ultimately became Kenseth’s series-high fourth victory of the season even though he passed on getting new tires after the race’s ninth caution. He widened his lead after a wild four-wide restart on lap 246 that saw Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy spin from second place on a dominant day he led three times for 182 of 267 laps.
The series points leader finished ninth and leads Carl Edwards by 38 points.
Kenseth led twice for 38 laps, including the final 23 in the No. 20 Toyota.
Second was Jamie McMurray in a Chevy, followed by Clint Bowyer (Toyota), Joey Logano (Ford) and Kyle Busch (Toyota).
Rain on Saturday forced officials to postpone the race to a daytime start.
The race was red-flagged for 18 minutes after a six-car wreck involving defending race and Sprint Cup winner Brad Keselowski, who returned to finish 33rd.
Kenseth, like Johnson, was due for a breakthrough on the 1.5-mile oval after finishing seventh here last year and sixth in the 2011 inaugural race. But 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 267-lap event.
From that point, 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.
Turns out, Kenseth needed to rely on his tires. Taking fuel only allowed him to gain three spots and 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.
The surprising late turn of events and the tense finish capped a weekend when a number of drivers were projected to win at Kentucky.
Friday’s pole qualifying generated enough excitement for the series’ third visit, with eight drivers breaking Johnson’s year-old track record of 181.818 mph. The group included the five-time champion, who shattered his own mark at 183.144 mph before Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 183.636 mph speed in the No. 88 Chevy snatched the record and the pole, leaving Johnson to settle for the third spot.
Earnhardt’s run in NASCAR’s new Gen 6 vehicle sealed his first pole since last fall at Richmond and only his third top-10 start this season. But it continued an encouraging trend for Junior at Kentucky, where he started seventh last year and finished fourth. His objective was ending a 37-race victory drought and improving his seventh-place points standing coming in.
Keselowski sought to break his own drought as well and entered the race on a roll. On Friday night, the Michigan native dominated the second half of the Nationwide series race before earning a rain-shortened victory, which followed his runner-up finish in the truck event on Thursday.
The combination of strong finishes gave Keselowski early bragging rights over fellow Cup veteran Kyle Busch, competing in the grueling tripleheader weekend as well. Busch wasn’t far off from Keselowski, running a spot behind him in the Truck race and finishing fifth in Nationwide.
Edwards quickly got past Earnhardt after the green flag and led the first 32 laps, although a competition caution allowed Earnhardt to reclaim the lead with a two-tire stop, a strategy followed by the top 10. Denny Hamlin was one of those and restarted sixth on lap 36, but he quickly had to return to the pits when his right front tire went down.
Hamlin’s misfortune quickly created concern for Earnhardt and Johnson when the rubber slid off the tire rim during his exit and flew back on to the track. Earnhardt ran over it, bending his splitter’s right side, before the tire flew off and bounced off Johnson’s hood to bring out the race’s second caution on lap 39.
Another wreck sent Hamlin to the infield care center and left him 35th.
The biggest incident came 10 laps later when Kurt Busch spun out Keselowski near turn 1, triggering a six-car 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.