Commentary

Kenseth, Ratcliff come up big

Updated: June 30, 2013, 7:22 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

SPARTA, Ken. -- Jimmie Johnson outmaneuvered again. Chad Knaus outsmarted again.

What in name of all that is NASCAR holy is going on here?

Matt Kenseth won for the fourth time this season in the No. 20 Toyota, thanks to a brilliant pit call at the end by crew chief Jason Ratcliff to not change any tires on the final stop. Kenseth restarted first and would not be denied in the final 20 laps.

Great strategy and superb driving. You know, the kind of thing that Knaus and Johnson used to do.

[+] EnlargeKenseth
Sean Gardner/Getty ImagesMatt Kenseth cruises to the victory at Kentucky Speedway on Sunday.

But lately, the No. 48 Chevy team, which for years rarely made a wrong move down the stretch, can't seem to get anything right when the race is on the line.

Once again, Johnson had the best car by a big margin. He led 182 of 267 laps in the Quaker State 400, which was postponed to Sunday after a rainout Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

But late restarts have become kryptonite to Johnson. Just like the Dover race four weeks ago, Johnson resembled a restart rookie and blew it when it counted.

And just like Dover, Johnson threw a fit about how the leader (Kenseth on Sunday and Juan Pablo Montoya at Dover) acted on the restart.

"They need to penalize [Kenseth] for stopping the field," Johnson said on his radio.

It's the same complaint Johnson had in Dover against Montoya, claiming the leader brake-checked him in the restart zone.

NASCAR officials didn't see it that way in either incident. And this time, Johnson spun out after being the slowest car up front when the green flag waved.

Joey Logano moved underneath Johnson to avoid hitting him and got beside Johnson's car before Johnson spun as cars raced by him.

Meanwhile, Kenseth held off one big charge by Clint Bowyer after the caution and easily won for the third time in five races this season on a 1.5-mile oval.

Ratcliff rolled the dice on old tires to get out front.

"I thought he was slightly crazy," Kenseth said of Ratcliff. "I didn't think there was any way we were going to hang on for that win. Unless Jimmie broke, I thought we had zero chance of winning. But Jason did a great job. It was a great call. Jimmie had a heck of a car today. I'm not sure what happened there [on the restart]."

What happened was Johnson got outmaneuvered on the restart, plain and simple. And Knaus got outsmarted on tire strategy. Johnson came to pit road with the lead. Knaus elected to change two tires.

Ratcliff knew his driver had no chance if they did the same thing as the 48.

"I knew if we got Matt the [lead] position, he would make a good fight out of it," Ratcliff said. "I knew that was our only shot to get it done today. With the success we've had early this season, we can take some shots like this. And this one is really special. This is a standout of the year for me."

It was another wasted opportunity for Johnson, who still leads the season standings by 38 points over Carl Edwards. That was no consolation to him Sunday. Johnson, who finished ninth, clearly was upset afterward. He answered one quick question and walked away.

Jamie McMurray, who had a season-best second-place finish, was asked if he thought anything strange happened on the restart that ruined Johnson's day.

"Honestly, I thought the restarts were strange all day long," McMurray said. "I didn't think that one stuck out, though."

Clint Bowyer, who finished third, said the only thing that surprised him about the restarts was seeing Kenseth hold him off on old tires.

"I was surprised that worked," Bowyer said, "especially as rough as this surface is."

In the postrace interview session, Kenseth seemed genuinely dumbfounded when told about Johnson's accusations. Was Kenseth playing any restarts games?

"Not at all," Kenseth said. "I don't know what I could have done to upset [Johnson]."

By rule, the leader controls the restart. There is a restart zone, which is marked on the outside wall, where the leader is allowed to accelerate.

"I got in the [restart] box and I went," Kenseth said. "You can look at data and see I didn't slow down. I certainly didn't feel I did anything wrong."

Johnson disagrees, and probably will have more to say about it in the future. He lobbied for restart rules clarity after the Dover incident.

Maybe the other teams finally have found a weakness in the 48's armor.

Johnson and Knaus remain one of the top racing duos ever, despite this little hiccup. But this situation can go one of two ways for Johnson: Either he complains enough that NASCAR makes restart-rule changes, or nothing changes and Johnson is viewed as the five-time champ who whines when things don't go his way.

Kenseth said he understands Johnson's anger.

"When you dominate all day [and lose], it's frustrating," Kenseth said. "I've been there, too."

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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