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Kenseth takes checkered flag at Quaker State 400

By DAVE TAYLOR

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Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth drove a patient race behind the dominant Lowe’s car of Jimmie Johnson and took advantage of a late Johnson miscue to win Sunday’s Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway.

The race was Johnson’s to lose and lose it he did. 

Johnson led 182 of the 267 laps in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, but on the restart after a caution on lap 247, Johnson got loose in heavy traffic, spun and was forced to pit for new tires. The incident created another caution period and when the race restarted on lap 151, Kenseth charged into the lead never to be challenged.

Kenseth, who had taken only fuel on his final pit stop on lap 244, benefitted from the decision by his crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, not to make a tire change. All other cars near the front of the pack made tire changes required a longer pit stop and allowed Kenseth’s Dollar General car to leave pit road in the lead.

“Obviously, that gave us a shot to win and put us a chance to restart as the leader, which is always important to get out front,” Kenseth said following the race.

“We’ve been aggressive on our calls all year,” Ratcliff said. “But today was a perfect opportunity to take advantage of that, and we did, and Matt hung on and drove his heart out and brought us home with a victory.”

“I didn’t roll the dice, Jason did. I thought he was a slightly crazy when it happened,” Kenseth said. “This is such a great team and a great opportunity for me.  It’s been just an unbelievable season and year of my life, honestly. Jason did a great job. I didn’t think there was any way we were going to hold on for that win. He made the right call at the right time and these guys got it done on pit road.”

The win was the fourth of the season for Kenseth who is in his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing. Kenseth qualified 16th and posted the greatest improvement from a starting position by a Sprint Cup Series race winner at Kentucky Speedway. He was in second place by Lap 60, led for the first time from Laps 95-108 and improved from the fourth spot on a gutsy late pit stop. He led the closing 23 circuits of the 267-lap event and paced 38 laps on the day.

Kenseth won by the second-closest margin of victory at the track (0.699 of a second) ahead of Jamie McMurray who was driving for the Earnhardt Ganassi team. Clint Bowyer finished third, Joey Logano fourth and Kenseth’s JGR teammate, Kyle Busch, who won the inaugural Quaker State 400 in 2011, rounded out the race top five.

“It was definitely an up and down day, but we had a really fast car,” McMurray said. “Speed hasn’t been an issue for us this year, we just haven’t been able to get the finishes I feel like we deserve. I ran with (Kenseth) for a good part of the day and I felt like there was times I was better than him and times he was a little better than me.”

Bowyer actually led McMurray on the last restart. “I was trying to block Jamie at the end and realized I’d better get the hell out of the way before I get myself wrecked,” he said. “So I gladly pulled over and let him go. We didn’t need a caution right there.”

Rounding out the top 10 were Kurt Busch in sixth place, Martin Truex, Jr., in seventh, Jeff Gordon placed eighth, Johnson ninth and Kevin Harwick placed 10th. 

Hendrick Motorsports driver Johnson had a solid day ruined on the lap 247 restart that followed Kenseth’s winning pit move. Johnson’s No. 48 spun in Turn 2, but he rebounded with a ninth-place showing that marks his second career top-10 Kentucky Speedway NSCS finish

Another Hendrick driver, pole setter Dale Earnhardt, Jr., led early in the race but ran over tire debris from the No. 11 car of Denny Hamlin that damaged the front and right fender of Earnhardt’s No. 88 National Guard car. Earnhardt eventually finished 12th behind teammate Kasey Kahne in the No. 5 Quaker State car.

The Quaker State 400 was delayed from Saturday after a series of heavy rainstorms forced the race under the lights to be postponed. Sunday’s midday start came under partly cloudy skies. Weather was never a factor on Sunday. The postponement and questionable weather forecast kept a number of race fans away as there were numerous empty seats in the grandstands on Sunday. Still, race officials praised those who braved the weather and stayed until past 9 p.m. on Saturday and those who were present for the rain delay on Sunday.

University of Kentucky Wildcats Coach John Calipari was the honorary driver of the pace car to start the race. “This is a special day to come and drive the pace car,” Calipari said. “It’s a thrill. I’m a NASCAR fan, so to be able to do that is really big for me!”