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Kenseth rallies to maintain points edge

October 13, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Late Charlotte surge keeps No. 20 team ahead of Five-Time

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CONCORD, N.C. -- Struggling to advance toward the front and watching as his closest rival for the championship charged toward a potential momentum-swinging victory, Matt Kenseth could see his lead in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup slipping away.

But one last restart changed the complexion of Saturday night's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and perhaps added another wrinkle to the title hunt as well. Kenseth surged to third over the final laps, and actually finished one position better than Jimmie Johnson, who led 130 circuits but was denied a trip to Victory Lane. And then there was the bigger picture, where after a less-than-perfect effort at Dover, a struggle at Kansas and a comeback at Charlotte, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver somehow maintained a slight edge.

Kenseth now leads Johnson by four points as the two former champions pace the Chase field to big and unpredictable Talladega Superspeedway next weekend. It was a somewhat surprising end result, given that Johnson was among the class of the field all night, and Kenseth spent most of the evening working his way up from a 20th-place qualifying position.

"Certainly glad we're still leading," Kenseth said. "Tonight was a big positive for us. It was a little bit of a struggle this weekend, more than we anticipated. I didn't get a good lap qualifying, and that was really the start of us being behind tonight. About our second or third adjustment, (crew chief) Jason (Ratcliff) and our group really hit it and really found something that I liked, and our car started driving really good."

Particularly toward the end, when the No. 20 was at its best. A late caution for debris left Kenseth in fourth place for the restart, and more importantly one of the first cars with four tires. "We got a shot at it," Ratcliff told his driver over the radio. As Johnson spun his wheels and staggered at the green, Kenseth shot forward and challenged for the lead for the first time all night.

Kenseth was a little too loose to hold off Kasey Kahne or eventual winner Brad Keselowski, but he settled for a third-place finish that was a vast improvement over where he started the race. "I'm not disappointed at all right now," he said in the media center after the race.

"This is a tough deal. It's hard to run up front every week. It's hard to win races. It's hard to do all that. And I felt like tonight, (Johnson) probably had us beat. … Being greedy, of course you want to win, and you go out and do everything you can do, and I couldn't get it done. But yet for where we started and how we were the first two runs of the race, I thought my whole team did an incredible job. I was happy where we ran, happy where we finished."

So was Ratcliff, although given the car's position on the last restart it was natural for him to think the No. 20 team had missed a shot at a potential eighth victory on the season.

"Was pleased with the fact that we started 20th and drove our way into the top five. Guys fought hard, did a great job on pit road. Didn't have a great race car to start, but every stop it seemed we were able to make the right adjustments," the crew chief said in the garage after his car was torn down for inspection.

"But then you look past all that, and you're like, we're lining up third or fourth here with four tires, and we've got two tires in front of us, we've got a shot at it. So that kind of becomes a focal point. When we look back on this race, you've got to pat yourself on the back for what we did. But at the same time it's like -- man, we had an opportunity to win the race. We could have done a better job at the end on our adjustments to get a little more speed out of our car."

In the end, though, the No. 20 team still clung to a slim points lead. Kevin Harvick maintained third place, 29 back, while Jeff Gordon was 36 behind in fourth. Charlotte marked the halfway point of the Chase, and the intensity only gets higher and the races more testing from here.

Which is why Kenseth and his team were happy to leave Charlotte with any advantage, even if it was a small one.

"It's not really about how much you have the lead by," Ratcliff said. "To me, it’s you have a lead, and you're a stone's throw from a group that's done this five times, and been there even more than that. So we know we're doing the right things, if we can just stay close to those guys. We'd love to be 35 points ahead. That would be great. But man, you have to be realistic. If we can hang close to those guys, we’re doing the right things."

MORE:

READ: Keselowski fills
winless void at Charlotte

WATCH: Final Laps:
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WATCH: No. 2 car exits
pits with jack along for ride

WATCH: Post-race
reactions from Charlotte