Late-race incident puts dent in Kenseth’s championship hopes
Now, his third championship is there for the taking.
“We’ve had one of those up-and-down years and we’re having a run in this Chase, and now we’re hungry,” Stewart said after his third victory in the first seven Chase races moved him within eight points of leader Carl Edwards. “We’re hungry for this. I feel like our mindset into these next three weeks, we’ve been nice all year to a lot of guys, given guys a lot of breaks.
“We’re cashing tickets in these next three weeks.”
Stewart won this one by passing Jimmie Johnson on a restart with three laps to go Sunday.
Stewart then playfully called out Edwards.
“He better be worried. That’s all I’ve got to say,” Stewart said in Victory Lane, a broad smile spreading across his face. “He’s not going to sleep for the next three weeks.”
Stewart moved from 19 points behind leader Edwards and in fourth place to just eight points behind in second as several contenders got caught up in a season-high 18 caution flags.
Others deserved much better than what they got, namely Cambridge native Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski. They started the day second and third in points, and both were running near the front all day until getting caught up in late accidents. Kenseth finished 31st and Keselowski wound up 17th.
It seemed especially harsh for Kenseth, who was doing uncharacteristically well for him on the 0.526-mile oval until tangling with Kyle Busch on lap 464. Kenseth wound up in the garage.
“That ruined my day, along with his and whoever else got unfortunately collected in that mess,” Kenseth said about Busch, who also ran up front all day but limped home in 27th place.
Kenseth was running eighth when he crashed.
With a strong finish, Kenseth appeared poised to take over the points lead. Instead, he dropped from second to fifth in the standings, 36 points back.
Even Stewart had trouble, at one point having to apologize to race leader Denny Hamlin for racing him hard to stay on the lead lap. And that was with less than 200 laps to go.
“I was pretty mad all day, but I was the only guy who didn’t get in a wreck with somebody, so I was kind of proud of that,” Stewart said, adding that crew chief Darian Grubber, his spotter and several team members told him before the race to stop being so nice on the track.
The winning pass, to Johnson’s outside, surprised even him.
“I don’t think anybody has ever passed Jimmie Johnson on the outside,” he said, crediting Grubb for making the right calls and adjustments all race long. “I don’t think we had the best race car today, by any means, but we had the most determined pit crew.”
Johnson, for much of the day, looked like he might be the one making a huge gain in the points race, especially as Edwards floundered in the mid-20s and wasn’t getting any better.
The cautions, which slowed things for 108 laps, also a season high, allowed Johnson to weather a call by crew chief Chad Knaus to stay out when all the leaders behind him pitted for fresh tires with just over 40 laps to go. But he was unable to hold on with Stewart pressing him at the end.
“I just could not get away from him on the restart,” he said. “I thought about going in there and leaning on him, move him up, but that is just not the right thing to do.”
Stewart last won the championship in 2005.
Edwards laughed when told about Stewart’s challenge.
“He’s wound up. He won the race. We’ll see what happens at Texas,” Edwards said.
Edwards struggled all day, twice needing the get a free pass as the first car a lap down. He made it pay off the second time, adjusting his car and rallying to finish an unlikely ninth.
“That’s just a gift,” he said. “We did not deserve to finish ninth.”
Jeff Gordon finished third, followed by Kevin Harvick. Hamlin was fourth.
Janesville native Travis Kvapil was 16th, his best finish of the season.
Last updated: 6:37 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012