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Johnson close, but Kenseth holds points lead

October 06, 2013, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com

Kenseth's lead over 'Five-Time' now stands at just three points

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- There were "close moments," to be sure, Matt Kenseth said.

"I was over my head every lap. If I'm a cat, I don't think I have any lives left. I used them all up today."

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver finished 11th in Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, thanks in part to a speeding penalty that put him off sequence and a myriad of changes to his No. 20 Toyota Camry throughout the brisk afternoon.

It was enough, if only barely, to keep Kenseth, 41, on top of the points standings in this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

An eight-point advantage over five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was sliced and diced on what most drivers described as a "treacherous" 1.5-mile track. It wasn't totally erased, however.

Johnson piloted his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to a sixth-place finish, and now trails Kenseth by three points after the series' fourth Chase race.

"We were really far off," Kenseth said of the condition of his team's car when the 267-lap race got underway. "I kind of got lost and sped on pit road which actually ended up being a stroke of good luck in a way. Because we knew we could come in, really make the adjustments that (crew chief Jason Ratcliff) wanted to, that were going to take 30 or 40 seconds. We wouldn't have done it unless that (had) happened.

"Really once that happened he made the car better; we had a good strategy call, we just got caught under the green flag pit stop and had (to take) the wave around."

The speeding penalty occurred during a round of pit stops following a crash involving Justin Allgaier and Ryan Newman on Lap 136. Fourth when he hit pit road, the penalty dropped Kenseth back to 30th.

He was running 16th later in the race when he pitted (on Lap 220), only to see the yellow appear again less than 10 laps later for debris. Once again, he found himself restarting the race from near the back, after taking the wave around to remain on the lead lap.

Slowly, his car came to life, and with little more than 40 laps remaining, he began working his way back through the field. He was inside the top 20 by Lap 240 and just outside the top 10 with a dozen laps remaining.

"That was by far the best we were," he said of his late charge. "As you get closer to the front it gets tougher, but we passed a lot of cars and climbed back in it.

"I feel lucky for not being wrecked and I feel fortunate to still be leading the points. It was not the day we wanted. The last two weeks we've struggled a little bit and … (it) could have been worse. I'm proud of this team, they didn't give up on me today."

Ratcliff, who has helped guide Kenseth to a series-leading seven wins this year, said it wasn't necessarily the changes his team made to the car.

"I think he just got used to it maybe," a relieved Ratcliff said.

"That's the problem with this kind of tire, which they have to bring to these repaves because they're so fast, so abusive. But the tire is so hard you need a really major setup change to really move the needle …just way more than you can typically do on pit road.

"Once we got behind there, we were going to have to start at the back … we took a big swing at it. Probably made it better there at the end. He was able to at least pass cars, which we hadn't been able to do all day … I just wish we had restarted in the top 10 there at the end, and maybe had a shot at a top-five."

Ratcliff said struggles are to be expected in the Chase.

"I'm glad it's over," he said. "I'm glad to come out of here with an 11th place finish. And the points lead. It was a struggle."

It was Kenseth's first finish outside the top 10 in the Chase.

Johnson lost power briefly on the white-flag lap but managed to recover for the sixth-place finish.

"It started losing power and shaking real bad," he said. "All in all, it was just a crazy day. It started shaking real bad and I thought it was over. But I limped it around and got it to the finish line.

"It's gratifying for sure (to gain points), and it's nice to beat the 20 (of Kenseth). The 18 (of Kyle Busch) had a tough day. Got a couple on the 20, so that’s good; all in all, a good day."

Busch, third in points and only 12 out of the lead entering the race, was involved in a pair of crashes and wound up 34th in the 43-car field. The trouble dropped him to fifth in the points battle, and he now trails Kenseth by 35 points.

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