Kenseth defies Martinsville odds to force standings deadlock
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- It was supposed to be Jimmie Johnson's statement race, one in which he and his Hendrick Motorsports team put a bit of distance between itself and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team with driver Matt Kenseth.
Kenseth, however, had other ideas.
Thanks to a runner-up finish and a bonus point for leading the most laps, Kenseth erased Johnson's four-point advantage and the two title contenders are now tied with 2,294 apiece after 33 races.
"I think we saw here in the spring race with Matt and we've seen it in general in that Gibbs equipment, (that) he's tough," Johnson said after finishing fifth in Sunday's Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 Powered by Kroger.
"Those cars are great, he's doing an awesome job and he's bonding well with his crew chief. All in all, he's doing what I would expect. I wish that he wouldn't have had an awesome day here, we would have loved to have gotten some points on him.
"When it comes down to the championship at the end of the year, you have to expect the best out of people and they're certainly doing an awesome job."
Both drivers found themselves having to race their way back through the field on Sunday due to varying pit stop strategies during an event that saw the caution flag appear 17 times.
Johnson, an eight-time winner at Martinsville, wasn't conceded the win beforehand, but given the past success of he and crew chief Chad Knaus here, he was the easy favorite. He led three times for 123 laps, but never in the second half of the 500-lap race.
Stuck in the outside lane on numerous restarts made maintaining one's position "tough," he said.
"You just keep watching that inside lane march on and not able to get down. That put us back and it forced our hand to pit a bit early and then I had to come through the pack. And as things cycled around, Matt was probably 8-10 positions ahead of me. … It just didn't kind of go our way from lane starts, but that's how it goes."
Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, currently holds the tiebreaker between the two drivers with seven wins to Johnson's five. Win No. 8 slipped from his grasp on Lap 480 when eventual race winner Jeff Gordon powered past for the final lead change of the race.
"I have nothing to complain about, just you always feel bad when you're leading at the end and your crew puts you out front and you can't hold on to win," Kenseth said. "So I'm disappointed about that.
"I'm just not that experienced running up front here and I had something that was working, but I was kind of hurting the rear tires and I hurt the front tires too."
Crew chief Jason Ratcliff said the No. 20 team was most concerned about the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Talladega and Martinsville, "so to come out here with a good performance, finish second … that's like a win to me.
"Maybe we ran a little too hard in the first 10 laps ... but he had one of the best out there breathing down his neck. … Between Jeff and Denny (Hamlin) and Jimmie, they are just so good here; when you can run against those guys here competitively for a win, that's putting your in a different league in my opinion."
With three races remaining, Kenseth isn't ready to call it a two-man race between himself and Johnson.
"I think if you're within a race (points-wise), anything can happen. … If you're more than 48 points behind more than one driver, more than two drivers, I think that's hard to overcome with three races to go.
"But as we've seen through the years, anything can happen. You just never know what's going to happen."