- Ed Hinton, NASCAR
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LOUDON, N.H. -- Is a little Herman's Hermits music appropriate here? You know, "second verse, same as the first": Matt Kenseth wins, teammate Kyle Busch runs second, and Jimmie Johnson finishes high enough to stay within reach of the 1-2 punch from Joe Gibbs Racing.
It's only appropriate by the numbers. The real meaning of Kenseth's 2-for-2 start in the Chase and his seventh win of the season is considerably stronger.
It was one thing for him to win at Chicagoland, a 1.5-mile track that's in his career comfort zone, last week. It was a vastly different matter, one that made his voice crack with elation and disbelief in Victory Lane, to win at the flat, 1-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway that he hadn't mastered until Sunday, on his 500th career start.
"To me, a win at Loudon is more than a stretch and more than a dream, because it's probably one of my worst places," he said. "That just shows you how good this whole team is."
"He doesn't take enough credit," said his crew chief, Jason Ratcliff. "He has gone out and done a fabulous job this year."
Kenseth got five regular-season wins to clinch the top seed in the Chase, and since then has kept on bolstering his lead in this, his first season with JGR.
"It's been a great start for JGR, Kyle ran second both races," Kenseth said.
Coming into this race, Kenseth had said the Chicagoland win was meaningless here because New Hampshire is a "totally different kind of track, totally different style of racing."
But Sunday's mastery of this mile bodes well for him at Phoenix in November, in the next-to-last race of the season. Add that to his perennial strength on the 1.5-milers, of which there are four more in the Chase.
"You never go to the track and hope to just get through a weekend," Kenseth said, "but certainly if I had to pick from all the races, this is probably the one that I had more anxiety over than most, just because I really feel like I'm the weak link here. It's tough to pass, it's easy to get shuffled back on a restart and not get such a good finish."
But, just as with the season and with JGR, Ratcliff gave Kenseth credit specific to NHMS.
"Matt doesn't give himself nearly enough credit around here," Ratcliff said. "To me, restarts are key here, especially when you know most of the guys are going to have either old left-side tires or old right-side tires. It makes it difficult to get going.
"His restarts were exceptional today," Ratcliff continued, "and I think that's one of the keys that got us the victory."
Johnson finished fourth, behind Greg Biffle, to maintain third place in the standings behind Kenseth and Busch. That was one spot better than Johnson finished last week.
"To open with a five-four is great, but a one-one like Matt's had is obviously a lot better," Johnson said. "But we're in a good spot. We're not giving up too many points and we're going to one of my best race tracks next week at Dover."
Busch closed on Kenseth in the final laps Sunday, but said that was only because they were working lapped traffic.
"Car to car, and clean air to clean air, he was better than us," Busch said. "But I could gain on him and catch him in traffic, and I could get through traffic better than he could. But he was definitely really good once we got to single file, and when we [the two of them] had a little bit of a gap, he could sort of stretch it out on me.
"The 20 has just had a special car here this weekend, and we tried everything to get ours like theirs," Busch said. Kenseth's car "was just super fast. Hopefully we can have one of those magical cars here in the next couple of weeks too."
Still, a pair of seconds isn't shabby to Busch, whose unit of the JGR team historically has stumbled in the Chase.
"I've said for years that if I could finish second in every single Chase race I'd take it and win a championship," Busch said. "To win a Chase race doesn't mean anything for us. It's all about the championship at the end."
Busch is off to his fastest Chase start, but "somebody else is faster," he said of his teammate.
Kenseth still wouldn't give himself much credit.
"I'm thankful to be part of this group," he said an hour or so after the Victory Lane ceremony.
"And it honestly doesn't seem real that we won today."
Matt Kenseth roared to a 2-0 start in the Chase with a convincing victory at one of his worst tracks. What does that say about the 2013 Sprint Cup championship leader? Plenty.