Kenseth bounced from Chase and Texas win in one fell swoop

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Matt Kenseth went into Sunday's Dickies 500 knowing he probably would be eliminated from Chase contention.

He didn't know he'd give up the race lead and a shot at wearing the cowboy hat and firing the six-guns at Texas Motor Speedway to winner Jimmie Johnson with two laps to go.

Typical of the easygoing native of Cambridge, Wis., he took it all in stride when it was over.

"I'm happy and I'm disappointed," Kenseth said. "Whenever you're leading with three [laps] to go, you're always disappointed when you don't win. That's been a couple of races [at Texas] in a row that's happened to us, getting passed on the last lap. So I was disappointed in that, but overall, if I look back at the day, it was a great day for us"

Heartbreak and TMS seem to go together for Kenseth in 2007. The 2002 winner here was passed by Jeff Burton on the final lap of the Samsung 500 in April. But Kenseth, who was Winston Cup champion in 2003, could see his loss Sunday coming.

"[Johnson] was way faster than me," Kenseth said. "He had four [fresh tires], and we had two. I think two is definitely the right call. I thought we got out there so far we were going to have a shot, but you can just never count those guys out.

"Jimmie's just a great race car driver and [crew chief Chad Knaus] does a great job on the box, and they have so much confidence and they got four tires on [the car]. … But I saw him coming, did everything I could to hold him off. I was too loose anyway, and those two tires just couldn't hang on to it."

Known best recently for having an after-race confrontation with teammate Carl Edwards, Kenseth should have erased most of those memories with one of the season's best on-track battles as he and Johnson fought for the lead in the final 10 laps. Kenseth said he once got sideways enough that he was almost sure he would take himself and Johnson out of the race.

Kenseth was protecting the low line and running well there, but as his tires started fading, he began working up high while Johnson stayed down low. It appeared at one point as though Johnson was backing off to race for points -- and second place.

Johnson really was just regrouping to make a final push, though.

"When I got close to him the first time -- he pulled out ahead of me -- I knew I had to drop back and regroup and start again [because] he had momentum on the bottom," Johnson said. "He let me go and drop back behind him, [and] then I got a run on him and got him cleared off of [Turn] 2."

The two-tire strategy on the final pit stop played a key role in getting Kenseth the lead, and he ran well all day. He even earned his third straight top-5.

But coming into the race in 11th place, he needed to win the final three races, lead the most laps in all three and hope Jeff Gordon, the points leader coming in, finished 41st or worse in all three. It wasn't just a long shot, it was nearly impossible.

Rick Hendrick, the team owner for Johnson and Gordon, said he thought about getting on the radio and telling Johnson to take it easy and race for points. He didn't do it, deciding to keep his trust in the driver who won the 2006 Nextel Cup title, and pretty soon Johnson had the lead.

Johnson said that he has a certain trust in a few drivers on the circuit to race clean and not do anything to get either car in a wreck and that Kenseth is one of them. Kenseth as much as admitted he is that kind of driver, even though he had to make a save Sunday to keep that reputation.

"I don't know," Kenseth said. "I mean, I think you try to race people, you know, the same all the time. … I don't think anybody could have made it any harder on him, to tell you the truth. I didn't give him a lot of extra room.

"I wasn't going to run into him or do anything crazy. But I certainly didn't give him a lot of room, and we were battling for the lead. I've had a couple of battles with him, and I guess he's won them all. So he's probably feeling pretty good about it, as fast as he reeled us in."

And Kenseth should feel pretty good about running a clean race and seeing his program get back on track.

K. Lee Davis is a motorsports editor for ESPN.com. He can be reached at kevin.davis@espn3.com