By Reid Spencer – NASCAR Wire Service – Loudon, N.H. – Was this real or instant replay?
For the second straight week, in the second race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Matt Kenseth led Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch to the finish line — and for Kenseth, who has struggled at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, that added a dreamlike quality to the victory.
The top seed in the Chase, Kenseth won Sunday’s Sylvania 300 by .533 seconds over Busch as JGR asserted its superiority for the second consecutive week. A half hour after the race ended, the magnitude of the victory was still sinking in for the 2003 Sprint Cup champion.
“For me to win at New Hampshire, first of all, is more than a stretch and more than a dream,” Kenseth said. “This is probably one of my worst places. That just shows you how good this whole team is. … I didn’t even know there was a Victory Lane here.
“I felt really confident with my car today, but to have a fast car and to be able to do all the right things with adjustments and strategy and pit stops and all that stuff and be out front and win is two different things. So I’m thankful to be part of this group, and it honestly doesn’t really seem real that we won yet today.”
Kenseth led a race-high 106 laps in winning for the seventh time this season, for the first time at the Magic Mile and for the 31st time in his career. Winning in his 500th start in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Kenseth extended his Chase lead to 14 points over Busch.
Greg Biffle drove from sixth to third after the final restart on Lap 258 of 300. Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson finished fourth, followed by Jamie McMurray and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Though Busch closed on Kenseth in traffic late in the race, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota acknowledged that his teammate had the superior car.
“Certainly, we were never as fast this weekend as the 20 (Kenseth) was,” Busch said. “They just had a special car. Sometimes you unload with them, and they’re just phenomenal. The 20 had that here this weekend. We tried everything to try to keep up with him and to get pace with him, but it was tough to do.”
Kasey Kahne saw his Chase hopes dim when he spun on the frontstretch on Lap 252 and nosed into the inside wall. Kahne came home 37th and fell to 13th in the standings, 71 points behind Kenseth and all but out of the running for the championship.
Brian Vickers, the July winner at the 1.058-mile track, started in the rear and finished seventh. Vickers was racing in the Nationwide Series at Kentucky Speedway and enlisted Kenny Wallace to practice and qualify his Sprint Cup car on Friday. Because of the driver change, Vickers had to drop to the back of the field for the start.
Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr. completed the top 10. Truex led 98 laps but fell back during the final 43-lap green-flag run.
“We had a good car the first half of the race, and then the second half, we just started getting tight,” said Truex,whose sponsor NAPA announced Thursday it was leaving Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of the season in the wake of penalties to the organization for attempting to manipulate the outcome of the Richmond race two weeks ago.
“It was cooling off and clouding up. We just could never get it turning again. Then that last set of tires was just terrible for us — just couldn’t do anything with it. It’s unfortunate. The guys did a good job all weekend. We struggled here the last few times and obviously made some huge gains in the right direction — just weren’t good enough to be there when it counted.”
Notes: Kenseth ran a special paint scheme commemorating his 500th start. The only other driver to win in his 500th Cup start was Richard Petty in 1970. … Johnson is third in the standings, 18 points behind Kenseth and the only driver other than Busch within 36 points of the leader. … Kenseth is the third driver to win the first two races in the Chase. Tony Stewart accomplished the feat in 2011 en route to his third title. Greg Biffle won the first two Chase races in 2008 and finished third in the final standings.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images