Following team-mate Denny Hamlin’s win last week at Chicagoland Speedway, Matt Kenseth made it two-from-two for Joe Gibbs Racing in the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup Contender Round, taking a hugely tense victory in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Kenseth wasn’t always the form driver at New Hampshire, but he was there to pounce when Kevin Harvick, who dominated the race for long periods, ran out of fuel with three laps still to go. It was a story of profiting when others were either hit with misfortune or fell on their swords in dramatic fashion, something 2003 champion – and some might say architect of the Chase format in NASCAR – has always been strong at. And the irony will be that if he claims a second NASCAR Sprint Cup trophy this year, he will have done it off the back of five wins (and still counting) in 2015 compared to the now-famous solitary victory in 2003.
It was a race that typified why the current elimination-heavy Chase format is nerve-shredding for drivers and teams and both enthralling and heartbreaking for the fans. It was a race which saw Kyle Busch slam the wall with a deflated tire and plunge into the Chase relegation zone, whilst Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski both flirted with danger; the former with a flat tire just before half distance, the latter for an incredibly controversial restart penalty called on him on lap 242.
Keselowski’s #2 Ford appeared to jump before Greg Biffle’s #16 car as the race got back underway after a wreck for Justin Allgaier, and despite giving the position back within half a lap – and replays showing Biffle seemingly spinning his tires – NASCAR still issued a black flag. Keselowski fought back to 12th, but was understandably angry at race end; “my understanding is quite clear, this is an entertainment sport, not a fair sport” was his scathing comment to reporters post-race. The restart zone is an area NASCAR has tried harder to police in recent weeks, but this penalty only served to illustrate what a Pandora’s box they are opening in the process; this debate will rumble on and on.
In the final 100 laps, several fuel strategies were in play. Biffle was on his own, having pitted lap 206. Several others, including Harvick, Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr., last pitted slightly later at lap 212. That left the majority, including Kenseth and Hamlin, who pitted at the lap 239 caution. So with the average fuel run being 82-88 laps, this would turn out to be a huge gamble for the likes of Harvick (particularly considering his dominant run up until that point), Busch and co., and particularly for Biffle. As the closing laps wound down, Harvick led Hamlin and Kenseth, driving a steady pace and confident that he and crew chief Rodney Childers had got their maths right. They hadn’t.
With four laps to go, the #4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet coughed to a halt, soon to be joined by the majority of those who pitted at lap 212, including Busch and Earnhardt Jr. That left Kenseth, having already passed Hamlin, to sweep home and book his place in the next round of the Chase. Despite pitting six laps earlier, Biffle somehow made it home for a fourth place and a huge boost for a beluguered Roush-Fenway Racing team – how he must have wished for a run like that two races before to sneak into the Chase.
It was a tough day even for the non-Chasers; Aric Almirola was an early casualty in the #43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford, and Danica Patrick saw a potential top-15 run go up in smoke as she got caught in the crossfire of a battle between Chasers Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon, smacked the Turn 1 wall, and got caught by a big impact from David Ragan in the aftermath.
Ultimately, the relief etched on Kenseth’s face in victory lane spoke volumes. This was about survival, and for many of NASCAR’s biggest guns, that was easier said than done. Next week’s race at Dover becomes win-or-bust for some, and survive-or-die for others. And tonight, Harvick and Childers will head back to the shop feeling like the England rugby union team – so close to a huge win, but ultimately now in a monumental amount of trouble, and with a week to turn things around and fight for survival and their continuing place in the tournament.