After the controversial week NASCAR endured, a return to normalcy was welcome. And what better represents normalcy this season than a Matt Kenseth win?
Kenseth tallied his series-leading sixth triumph of the season on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, where the sport kicked off its Chase for the Sprint Cup, 10-race playoff in the GEICO 400.
While Kenseth’s performance in his inaugural jaunt with Joe Gibbs Racing has been far from dominant, it has been as close as any one driver and team have come. The 14-year Cup veteran, along with teammate Kyle Busch (four wins) and rival Jimmie Johnson (four), have combined for 14 wins in the series’ 27 events. The three entered NASCAR’s Chase occupying the top three spots in the standings, and they remained there after Kenseth’s win, Busch’s runner-up and Johnson’s fifth-place showing.
“I think you have to be really good everywhere to be able to win a championship,” said Kenseth, who has five wins on intermediate tracks and one on a half-mile oval in 2013. “I’m really enjoying this win. It’s been a record season for me (six wins). I’m obviously the same guy, the same driver — it’s about Joe Gibbs Racing, the guys working there, Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) and the group.”
The day got off to an inauspicious start, as the green flag was delayed for over an hour due to rain.
Once racing began, Kenseth, who qualified 10th, took the lead on lap 83 and remained on point for 35 of the next 36 laps. However, his “real-time” on point lasted over five hours, as rain brought the race to a halt on lap 109 and a red flag period ensued.
When Kenseth led the field to green just past 10:00 pm EST, the complexion of the race changed. Seven engine failures — including those of Chase contenders Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano — slowed the pace and found multiple cars leading laps as green- and yellow-flag pit stops shuffled the running order.
In the end, the two best cars — Kenseth’s No. 20 and Busch’s No. 18 JGR Toyotas — battled for the win. And the final restart on lap 245 cemented the victory for the former, who lined up along Busch but used a shot of on-track momentum from Kevin Harvick to sail by and assume the lead for good off of Turn 2.
“That push from Kevin got us out in front where we really needed to be,” said Kenseth, who cruised to a .749-second win.
Nine of the top-12 finishing spots went to Chase drivers. Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Harvick, Kurt Busch, Johnson and Jeff Gordon comprised the top six. Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne finished ninth-12th. Brad Keselowski and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were seventh and eighth, respectively.
The week and the weekend was a controversial one for the sanctioning body. On Monday, it penalized Michael Waltrip Racing’s three teams, which knocked Martin Truex Jr. out of the Chase, for manipulating the outcome of last Saturday’s Richmond race. Newman, in turn, was ceded Truex’s Chase slot.
On Saturday, just minutes before Sprint Cup practice, NASCAR held a closed-door meeting with the drivers, crew chiefs and team principles. CEO Brian France, President Mike Helton and Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton then announced to the media the shocking and extraordinary decision to expand this season’s Chase to 13 drivers — by adding Jeff Gordon — from 12.
This decision was made, in part, from radio transmissions discovered during the week between Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports that added further questions to the legitimacy of the competition at Richmond, and thus, the make-up of the Chase field.
NASCAR also announced revisions to its current rules that address how teams assist competitors in-race.
“(The) technical bulletin addresses the subject of teams artificially altering the outcome of a race and the level of reaction that this will receive from NASCAR,” Pemberton said. “We reinforced this issue to the teams in our meeting and conveyed what is considered unacceptable in our officiating of the event.”
In addition, NASCAR modified its restart rules and made changes to the teams’ spotters and in-race communication, limiting each team to one spotter and eliminating digital communications within the teams.
The announcements — particularly the expansion of the Chase field — were met with confusion from the media, fanbase and even some competitors.
“I’m not even sure what to say at this point,” Truex told USA Today Sports. “I’m kind of at a loss for words. They (NASCAR) kick me out to make a spot for somebody and then they don’t do the same for the other guys. It’s just unfair and (there’s) nothing I can do about it.”
Earnhardt, Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, was also scratching his head.
“I was probably just as surprised as anybody that anything happened, because we’re so far into the week,” Earnhardt said on Saturday. “It’s just really extraordinary and unprecedented. I don’t know what’s fair anymore, you know what I mean?”
Even Gordon’s protégé, Johnson, was at a loss:
“Through all of this, we’re all just looking for consistency.
“I’m very happy that Jeff is in the Chase, but in my opinion, there should be 12 cars. One in, one out should be the deal. It’s not.”
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro