KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The fast, smooth new surface at Kansas Speedway had the potential to wreak havoc on the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
The recent repave cluttered Sunday’s race with a record 14 cautions – a season high in the Sprint Cup Series – and contributed to issues that affected at least four title contenders. But the standings looked much the same when Matt Kenseth took the checkered flag in a battered Ford that he banged hard into the wall midway through the race.
Kenseth still managed to drive it to his second victory in three races, while Brad Keselowski dodged accident after accident to hang onto his seven-point lead over Jimmie Johnson in the standings with four races remaining in the Chase.
“I was thinking, `Man, this has to be entertaining for everybody to watch,’ “ Kenseth said. “There was a lot of wild stuff happening.”
That was an understatement Sunday, when the longest green-flag run was 35 laps early in the race. Some of the cautions were caused by tire problems, others were for single-car spins, including Chase drivers Johnson, Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle.
And, Danica Patrick wrecked herself when she intentionally wrecked Landon Cassill.
“You know, everybody has been asking all season long where the cautions have been,” Keselowski said. “Well, they flew to Kansas and they’ve been hanging out here because there was caution after caution.”
Biffle’s spin ended his day with a hard crash into the wall.
“I lost it, man. It got away from me off of four and we wrecked it,” said Biffle, who dropped five spots in the standings to 11th. “I had no indication, no little wiggle, no sideways. It just got away from me and it killed our day.”
Johnson, who led 44 laps early, was far luckier.
He had pitted from the lead and was back in traffic when a caution came out, and he spun by himself shortly after the restart. He, too, hit the wall on his spin, but crew chief Chad Knaus called him to pit road to get a look at the car instead of conceding laps by going to the garage for repairs.
Knaus then methodically dictated team orders, as Johnson stopped on pit road at least a half-dozen times for repairs over two caution periods.
“That looks good, man. They did a much better job than I thought they would,” he told Johnson as he drove away. “There’s really nothing wrong with that thing.”
Even Keselowski was surprised to see the heavily taped No. 48 back on the track when the race went green.
“I thought you said the 48 car wrecked?” he asked his crew. “He looks fine.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick praised the team efforts during a stop in the media center during the race.
“I have never in my 30 years of racing seen anyone perform that kind of surgery and not lose a lap,” Hendrick said.
In the end, Johnson salvaged a ninth-place finish and was carefully inspecting his Chevrolet after the race.
“I’m just now getting a chance to look at the damage on the car and it’s pretty severe,” he said. “I’m impressed that they fixed it as they did. All things considered, without my mistake, I think we had a shot to win.”
It was still good enough to keep the Chase margin unchanged with Keselowski, who finished a spot ahead in eighth. He came into the race with a seven-point lead and left with a seven-point lead as the series heads next weekend to Martinsville Speedway in Virginia.
“I’m glad to have survived the carnage and brought back a decent car,” Keselowski said. “Whew! Just a tough day.”
Martin Truex Jr. finished second, Paul Menard was third in the first race back for crew chief Slugger Labbe, who served a six-race suspension for an infraction at Michigan.
Kasey Kahne finished fourth and was followed by defending champion Stewart, who overcame both a spin during the race and a pit road penalty for leaving his stall with equipment still attached to his car.
“An eventful day,” Stewart said. “Our guys led by (crew chief) Steve Addington, they never gave up. That’s how we won a championship last year, by never giving up. We’ve got a little bit of work to do, but we’re gaining on it.”
Clint Bowyer, from nearby Emporia and the winner last week at Charlotte, finished sixth to maintain fourth in the Chase standings. He trimmed his deficit by three points to 25 behind Keselowski.
“We’ve just got to keep digging,” Bowyer said. “You’ve got to keep gaining on them. I was hoping to gain a little bit more than that, but we had a solid day.”
Regan Smith, in his second race filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr., was seventh. Earnhardt will test on Monday and see his doctor on Tuesday with every indication he’ll be cleared to return to the No. 88 Chevrolet next week at Martinsville after sitting out two races because of two concussions in a six-week span.
Keselowski, Johnson and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top 10. Denny Hamlin was 13th to remain third in the standings, but he lost five points and now is down 20 to Keselowski.
“This is a race where when you’ve got the other guys you’re racing finishing eighth and ninth, you’ve got to beat them, especially wrecked race cars,” Hamlin said. “We just shot ourselves in the foot a lot today.”
For Kenseth, it was his second win in three weeks, but not enough to put him back in the title picture. Although he gained two spots in the standings, he’s still ninth in the Chase and 55 points out.
Still, as he heads into his final month with Roush Fenway Racing, he’s appreciative of these final moments. Kenseth is leaving the team at the end of the season to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.
“I’m really, really thankful and humble to be sitting up here, honestly,” he said after the race. “It’s just a pleasure to drive that stuff. We still have some races left we want to win.”