When the sun goes down, things get wild at Bristol. No, this wasn't a sellout, and it's not the toughest ticket in NASCAR, but 135,000 fans saw a heck of a finish (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Wow, when Big Mo changes up in this sport, it really moves!
Jimmie Johnson has been so dominant most of the season that he's been seen almost as shoe-in for that sixth NASCAR championship. But he's now had four straight mediocre performances on the stock car tour since running second at Indianapolis.
And Matt Kenseth, who started the season as virtually the only man capable of running with Johnson at any track any given week, hit a late spring slump -- just after the Charlotte 600. And -- aside from that win at Kentucky in late June -- Kenseth has been far off his game the past many weeks.
But now, with a solid victory here in Saturday night's Bristol Irwin Tools 500, Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff "have our mojo back," as Kenseth boasted after his league-leading fifth Sprint Cup win of the season.
In fact, with two races left, Atlanta and Richmond, till the chase begins in Chicago Sept 15th, Kenseth is set to open the playoffs as the 'top-seed,' when the points are all re-zeroed for the playoffs.
And that means Johnson's big 'regular season championship' run will have been mostly for naught. The man who scores the most points over the year's first 26 races gets zilch for that performance.
Johnson came out of the Brickyard 400, where he ran second, with a huge 75-point lead over second-place Clint Bowyer. Four weeks later, Johnson's slump has him only 18 points in front of Bowyer.
Of course those points now mean little. Johnson, Bowyer and Kenseth here all three clinched playoff spots anyway.
Johnson was steely late Saturday night: "Once the chase starts, it is its own animal. So we'll just wait and see what happens during those ten."
Side by side, lap after lap, late in Saturday night's Bristol 500, Kasey Kahne on the inside, charging hard, Matt Kenseth on the outside, trying to hold on (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
One of the most curious questions here Saturday night post-race was why didn't Kahne put the bump-and-run on Kenseth. He had several opportunities the final miles. And that's a standard play here....though the loser certainly doesn't like it and typically makes that quite clear.
Kahne says he just doesn't race that way. Which may be why he is so perturbed with all these run-ins with Joe Gibbs drivers this season, which Kahne figures could have cost him four wins.
Still, Kenseth's tires had nearly 200 laps on them, well worn, while Kahne had much fresher tires.
"Matt did a good job of running as hard as he could as close to the wall as possible, which helped him a lot," Kahne said.
"I had a better car. We were on the right strategy. I just couldn't clear him.
"There were a couple shots I took... and I had to have been close, but I could feel him on the right side of my car, and I just didn't clear him.
"I didn't figure out how to get by.
"We had the best car the last 200 laps, and it was a lot of work. I wish I could have figured out how to get by him.
"I tried to clear him on a slide-job...and he just didn't brake, stayed in the gas, and we were going to hit each other. (So) I don't know how all that was going to work out (if he'd tried it again the last lap).
"I just didn't do anything crazy. I tried to pass him two times, ran up on his bumper and hoped he'd screw up, and he really never did.
"It's just discouraging... when, like Matt at Watkins Glen -- all he had to do was lift, and he didn't, because he didn't want to get passed from behind or whatever. It wasn't a mistake like he got loose or anything; he just didn't lift, and wiped us out.
"Those things are discouraging because that's not how I race.
"But at the same time, more times than not, Matt races me clean."
Luck has really turned against Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kenseth said he didn't have many choices out on the track.
"There is only one really fast groove, and I knew I couldn't let him outside of me, so honestly it was all about the windshield. I never even looked back," Kenseth said.
"You can't race any different -- If someone decides to run into the back of you or whatever, it's going to happen. There wasn't really anything I could do differently to guard against anything or change my line or take his away, because there was only one lane where my car ran good.
"The only time I changed it up was when he almost cleared me into turn 3 one time and I had to drive in really, really hard to make sure he couldn't get up in front of me. There wasn't a lot of extra room there.
"So it was an intense race.
"Kasey has a great reputation. He's a really hard racer, really talented, and he's also a really fair racer.
"I was expecting it to be about like it was.
"But I really thought he was going to pass me. I thought he had a good enough car to get around me.
"We had just enough to hang on.
"When he had that run off of turn 2 and I was only to his door going into 3, and I knew he was going to drive in there hard and try to do a dirt track slide job and get up in front of me -- if he had cleared me, it was lights out, done.
" I just drove in really hard, and the car stuck just enough to hold him off.
"Man, he would eat me up through the middle of the corner and get under me real easy.
"The harder I tried, I thought the slower I was going. When he got there with about eight to go, I knew we had our work cut out for us."
Matt Kenseth: Bristol winner, his fifth tour victory of the season, and he looks to head into the playoffs at Chicago as the new Sprint Cup tour leader for the 10-race chase (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)