Matt Kenseth, again in victory lane, as Ford's biggest winner of the season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
It was a brutal, brutal afternoon, hard crashes, blown right-front tires, battered cars, bruised feelings, angry emotions....and when Sunday's Kansas 400 was finally over, Matt Kenseth was celebrating an unlikely victory.
Kenseth wasn't immune to the epidemic of crashes; he slammed the car quite hard early in the race. But he wasn't alone, and all that mayhem played to his advantage.
So Kenseth, though out of title contention with four races to go, has his second win in the chase, his third of the year.
And the win comes as Kenseth is winding up his 14-year career with Ford's Jack Roush; he's moving to Joe Gibbs' Toyota camp.
It was an emotion win for Kenseth, not just because he's reaching a career turning point, but because this race was just so mentally -- and for many, physically -- exhausting.
"I thought it was over when I got in the fence when Aric (Almirola) wrecked under Mark (Martin)," Kenseth said. "I was watching them, and trying to make sure I didn't hit them. And I flat-sided it pretty bad (hitting the wall).
"But it ended up working in our favor. They fixed the body as good as it was when we started...and we had to take less gas in that last pit stop, so the pit crew put me out front."
Once in clean air, Kenseth was uncatchable. He finished half a second ahead of runner-up Martin Truex Jr.
The first part of the race was warm and sunny, and NASCAR pegged the crowd at 78,000. The second half of the race was overcast but still warm.
The win was Kenseth's second in three weeks, and Ford's late-season slump appears ended. Team owner Jack Roush said Ford had come up with some added engineering support the past few weeks, helping to turn things back around.
Aric Almirola, who had the fastest car in the Kansas 400, until his right front tire blew, takes down the window safety net so he can bail out of his fiery car (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Whatever this Kansas 400 was, it wasn't boring, or just follow-the-leader, as drivers had worried, with speeds up more than 10 mph and top speeds at some 200 mph, into the new 20-degree banking.
"It was a wild one, that's for sure," Truex said, calling the repave "great.
"I was glad to see that upper groove come in."
Everyone who finished was lucky Sunday, particularly Kenseth.
"I knew I hit it really hard, but thought it (the collision point) was centered up in the door real good," Kenseth said. "We had a similar thing happen at Homestead last year.
"As soon as we got the fender back where it was supposed to be, it was fine. I was happy that, as hard as I hit, that my steering wheel was still in the right place."
Kyle Busch (18) says he got a bum deal from Ryan Newman, and vows payback (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The 3-1/2-hour race, with a record 14 cautions, never really developed a pattern. But it certainly wasn't single-file racing, as most had predicted on this lightning-fast new asphalt. Many of the crashes occurred on the double-file restarts. But a number of crashes were single-car crashes when tires blew.
Goodyear reported no pattern for the tire issues, saying most were caused by tread cuts.
The championship picture heading this week to Martinsville Speedway for Round Seven of the 10-race playoffs: this race played out as a virtual draw among the top-three. Tour leader Brad Keselowski, 8th, held his narrow seven-point lead over Jimmie Johnson, who was perhaps the day's luckiest, rallying from a crash to finish ninth. Denny Hamlin, however, lost five points to Keselowski with his 13th-place run.
Clint Bowyer, sixth, picked up three points on Keselowski but remains 25 points down, not insurmountable but still difficult to overcome.
Jimmie Johnson's crew making repairs after Johnson's spinout. At least the damage wasn't as bad as last fall at Charlotte (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Johnson fell back to 28th midway when he crashed just after an untimely pit stop, under green, just before a caution came out, trapping him back in the pack. Johnson had been leading just moments before.
Johnson lost it off the fourth turn and backed into the wall. He lost a lap at that point, but when the men running ahead of him had to pit under the yellow he got back on the lead lap. The repair work by Johnson's crew was rather amazing.
"That's pretty torn up," Johnson said. "I just crashed the car. Saw Martin Truex bobble a little, and thought that was an opportunity to get by him. So I jumped in the gas. And it came around on me."
"Glad to survive the carnage. Dodged a bullet of a race," a clearly relieved Keselowski said. "Seems like every wreck that happened happened right in front of me. People have been asking all year 'where are the caution flag?' Well, we know where they've been -- hanging out right here.
"Now I'm ready to go home and have a beer."
Danica Patrick (10) tries to take the measure of Landon Cassill, during a spat of bumping. But she wound up getting the worst of it (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Johnson wasn't the only man making a surprising comeback. So did Tony Stewart, who crashed or spun several times, but finished fifth, with a shot to win.
The most disappointed man had to be Aric Almirola. He charged to the lead early and led much of the first hour, in a commanding performance, fighting to keep his ride with Richard Petty and Ford. But his right-front blew off the fourth turn on lap 215 of the 267-lapper, and he hit the wall hard, his car erupting briefly in flames.
"It was a big hit," Almirola said. "I lost my breath for a moment, so I had to collect my thoughts.
"I have never in my life had a race car that good. It was so fast and easy to drive.
"I've always been told you have to give a few away before you can win one; I feel we certainly gave one away today."
Matt Kenseth at the finish line (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
But also disappointed -- and angry -- was Kyle Busch, a contender until he got dumped by Ryan Newman on lap 181. Busch was none too subtle in vowing revenge.
"Everything is just on edge," Busch said. "You're really slipping and sliding and fighting for as much grip as you can find.
"I came down the backstraight, a little low, to protect the bottom and make sure I could keep my line. Then Newman just ran on the back of me and got me loose, and then he ran into the back of me and spun me out.
"I don't know what that was for, or why. But I'm glad he's wrecked along with me. And he'll get another here before the year is out."
Also angry was Danica Patrick, who, after a slide job pass by Landon Cassill, tried to take her revenge and ended up crashing herself. "I've had trouble with him....and at some point you have to stand up for yourself," she said.
"He slammed into me on the frontstraight for no other reason. I've always played fair. If it's one time, I can imagine frustration; but it's been pretty consistent him getting in to me.
"I have to stand up for myself, or everybody's going to do it.
"The bummer is this is my Texas car."
It was the first race back for crew chief Slugger Labbe, and his driver Paul Menard didn't disappoint:
"I thought this race would be single-file, treacherous, but it wasn't," the third-place finishing Menard said. "The second groove came in nicely, and the third groove too. For a repaved track, it came in well."
Aric Almirola waves to the crowd as he walks to the ambulance for the required medical checkup (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)