Matt Kenseth by two lengths over Kasey Kahne at the finish (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Matt Kenseth frustrated Kasey Kahne yet again, beating him for the third time this season in a head-to-head showdown, this time on another slam-bang night for highly frustrated drivers at increasingly tricky Bristol Motor Speedway.
Kenseth's win in the Irwin 500 under the lights Saturday night may have been just the mental lift, momentum booster he and Jason Ratcliff's team needed as they head toward the playoffs, which open in Chicago in three weeks.
For much of this season Kenseth seemed the only man who could give Jimmie Johnson a run for it every week, but then he hit a slump. Now the tables seem to have turned, with Johnson suddenly in a slump while Kenseth is on the rebound.
"We got our mojo back," Kenseth crowed after his very tense victory.
Kenseth was in command after the final restart with 47 laps to go at this high-banked half-mile. Juan Pablo Montoya, who is searching for a ride for 2014, was Kenseth's surprising late-race challenger. But once Kahne got by Montoya for second he started closing very fast on Kenseth and got to his bump with 15 laps to go.
Kahne used just about every trick in the book -- except the venerable Bristol bump-and-run -- but couldn't quite get around Kenseth.
The last 10 laps Kahne worked the inside on Kenseth every corner every lap. But Kenseth, as he did at Las Vegas and Kansas, was just too wily.
And then Kahne had the memory of their recent duel at Watkins Glen, when they crashed.
So Kahne took the game right to the edge but not over it, surprisingly perhaps at a track where 'rattling his cage' is typically part of the end game.
"I think Kasey is getting tired of battling me, and I know he wanted it bad," Kenseth said. "I used every inch of race track to hold on.
"I hope we're back. We've run not so great the last few weeks."
Martin Truex Jr. (56) slams into Kevin Harvick (29), in an incident also involving Denny Hamlin (11) (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kahne played it cleanly, even though another driver might have played it more roughly with a win on the line.
And Kahne has had several run-ins with other Joe Gibbs drivers this season.
Kahne was clearly angry afterwards, but more at himself:
"I just didn't get it done. I had the better car. And we needed this.
"If I could have gotten there, we'd have probably both wrecked. I thought I had him once, but I couldn't finish it.
"I am upset with myself for not figuring out how to win tonight. I clearly had the better car.
"I needed a win badly, but I also needed to finish.
"I almost had him with a slide job, but he didn't back off so we were going to wreck. So I didn't know how that would work out (if he'd tried that move again)."
The race featured several altercations, the biggest coming near the end, when Denny Hamlin and Brian Vickers tangled, cutting Hamlin's right-front tire and triggering a melee that took out Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., and Brad Keselowski.
The night's biggest loser, however, may have been Kurt Busch, who started from the front row but was forced behind the wall early to repair a rear wheel problem. He wound up 31st and that may cost him a shot in the playoffs.
The two wild cards at the moment to make the playoffs are Truex and Ryan Newman, with Atlanta and Richmond the last two races before the chase.
The top-10 looking to make the chase are Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Harvick, Kyle Busch, Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kahne, Greg Biffle and Joey Logano. Brad Keselowski sits 11th, still with no wins this year, but only four points behind teammate Logano.
Johnson, Bowyer and Kenseth all officially clinched spots in the playoffs.
Johnson had a rough night, never running well, and forced behind the wall for repairs after getting caught up in a crash involving Vickers, David Reutimann and Aric Almirola. He finished 36th, 60 laps down.
Bowyer was leading early when he got tagged from behind, taking him out of contention. He struggled home 14th.
Edwards showed one of the strongest cars in the field, but his engine broke.
Kyle Busch, winner of Wednesday's Truck race and Friday's Nationwide race, had to start Saturday's 500 from the rear after spinning out in Friday qualifying. He never got to the lead, though he made it to second. But after he got fenders dinged, he didn't quite have enough to do much down the stretch. He finished 11th.
Kurt Busch's crew forced to repair the right-rear during Saturday night's 500. The problem could cost Busch and his team a shot at the playoffs (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)