Commentary

Matt Kenseth weathers the storm

Updated: September 16, 2013, 12:45 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

JOLIET, Ill. -- The 13-driver lineup for NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup came together late, so maybe it's appropriate that the start of the Chase itself was delayed.

The GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway got underway more than an hour late on Sunday afternoon, and the field managed to complete 109 laps before wet weather returned to the greater Chicago area, bringing out the red flag for a further five-hour delay with Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth at the front.

Racing finally resumed a little before 9 p.m. local time, and Kenseth pretty much picked up where he left off. He passed his Gibbs teammate Kyle Busch shortly after the final restart of the night and stayed comfortably in front over the final 24 laps.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kenseth
John Harrelson/Getty ImagesSprint Cup championship leader Matt Kenseth opened the Chase playoffs in Victory Lane at Chicagoland Speedway.

It was the Gibbs teams' sixth win in seven races on 1.5-mile tracks this season, with four taken by Sprint Cup championship leader Kenseth.

Busch led across the start/finish line during a Lap 244 restart, but with the benefit of a big push from Kevin Harvick, Kenseth nosed ahead in Turn 1 and pulled clear. He quickly established a cushion of several car lengths and was never seriously challenged by his JGR teammate.

"I thought we were going to be a bit off in the conditions at night, but [crew chief] Jason [Ratcliff] did it again, and these guys are awesome," Kenseth said. "Need to thank Kyle and Denny [Hamlin] as well. We had a really good test here last week, and it really showed today. Kevin gave me a great push on that last restart, and this old car did everything I needed it to do.

"We were a little too tight at the end, and I wasn't sure I was going to be able to get Kyle, but I'm glad we got it out front."

Kenseth started 10th but battled what he called an "extremely loose" car over the first 30 laps and dropped to 14th place before a scheduled competition caution.

During that round of yellow-flag stops, Kenseth was one of a handful of drivers who took just two tires. That elevated him all the way up to fourth place, and he was well placed to take the lead on Lap 82 when five-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson suffered a slow green-flag pit stop.

Johnson's troubles, which included a jack failure during a subsequent pit stop that dropped him to 19th place, continued through the night. But he and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team did good damage control to emerge in fifth place at the checkered flag.

Busch led the most laps (67) during the night portion of the race, but once Kenseth nosed in front on the final restart, he had no answer for his teammate.

"I beat Kenseth to the line and thought I had enough momentum to stay with him, but the 29 [Harvick] gave him a big push and he stayed ahead," Busch said. "Once the No. 20 [Kenseth] got out front, I was a little too loose. I couldn't do anything with him, and that was the race right there.

"I certainly wish [the order of the 1-2 finish] was flipped, but it was a great night for Joe Gibbs Racing," Busch added. "Matt is really, really good at 1.5-mile racetracks. I mean, he's fast. I typically in the past haven't been great at them, but I'm improving, and it's a product of us all working together."

Harvick passed more cars than anyone on the night on the way to third place, the product of an eventful night in the pits.

"We went from top five three times down to 16th or 18th," he said. "One time, everybody took two tires. Another time, the No. 7 [Dave Blaney] spun in the pit stall. We all stacked up to avoid a crash. The rest was just bad performance on pit road.

"Our car was really good on restarts, so we could pick a bunch off pretty easy going into [Turns] 1 and 2," he continued. "It was a pretty good night. We were just a little too loose at the end to run with those guys."

With five of the 10 races in the Chase held on 1.5-mile tracks, Kenseth and the Gibbs team are looking in solid position. Kenseth has earned a series-high six race wins in 2013.

"One week at a time," he said, smiling. "Honestly, I'm already thinking about New Hampshire, because I'm a little bit apprehensive about that. I felt really good about coming here after the test we had and some of the things we have on this car.

"We'll enjoy this for the rest of the night, but then we'll start thinking about how to be competitive at New Hampshire, because that's kind of been our weak link. You have to be able to win everywhere if you want to win this championship."

NASCAR's clarified restart rule was tested for the first time on the 38th lap. During the Sunday morning drivers' meeting, the field was told that once the leader, or control car, starts to accelerate in the restart zone and the green flag is thrown, the second-place driver would no longer be required to lag behind until after the start/finish line.

On the first restart, Johnson accelerated in the restart zone, triggering the green flag, but was beaten to the line by Kyle Busch, who was not penalized and got credit for leading the lap. However, Johnson reassumed the lead on the 39th lap.

"I thought the restarts were good," Busch remarked. "It was cool to show on the first one that the second-place car could beat the first-place car to the line without worrying about a penalty."

Drivers qualified for the Chase swept the top six places and 10 of the top 13. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and pole winner Joey Logano both suffered engine failures and finished 35th and 37th, respectively.

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