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Kenseth overcomes blown tire, penalty for top-five

June 30, 2014, Pat DeCola, NASCAR.com

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SPARTA, Ky. -- Matt Kenseth started his race day at Kentucky by announcing he and sponsor Dollar General had extended their respective contracts with Joe Gibbs Racing.

He ended it with perhaps his best racing performance of the season.

Less than 30 laps into Saturday night's Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, Kenseth's teammate Denny Hamlin had a tire go down, sending his No. 11 careening hard into the wall and ending his night early. Kenseth had a nearly identical issue happen later on Lap 120, a blown right front tire putting the driver of the No. 20 Toyota down a lap with a second consecutive sour finish looking likely.

A caution for debris came out five laps later, allowing Kenseth to take a wave around and get back on the lead lap, but things quickly rolled back downhill when he incurred a pit road speeding penalty that sent him to the back of the field.

Yet when the checkered flag finally fell, Kenseth took home his sixth top-five of the season, pulling his Dollar General Toyota into pit road in fourth place.

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How did the 2003 Sprint Cup Series champion pull it off? He explained in typical, humble Kenseth style.

"Just had a great team. They did a really good job on pit road on the pit stop there and we gained a whole bunch of spots," Kenseth said, referring to a successful final stop that allowed him to put his ride in good position on the ensuing restart. "Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) had some good adjustments in the middle of the race that got us back in the game. It was certainly a positive weekend. We ran a lot better -- we've been struggling at these bigger tracks all year and I thought this was a big step forward."

Despite Hamlin finishing 42nd for his third consecutive result of 26th or worse, Saturday night's race could be considered a success for this JGR group. All three cars showed significant speed on the 1.5-mile Kentucky layout -- the same configuration they dominated in 2013 -- and could portend success the rest of the way. Strong runs at the intermediates are especially crucial come Chase time, when exactly half of the 10 races in the sport's playoffs are at 1.5-mile venues.

For Kenseth specifically, maintaining his winless state through the season's first 17 races is certainly disappointing, considering he led the series with seven victories in 2013.

JGR only has a pair of wins to its name after totaling a dozen in 2013, but this trio of drivers knows that sooner or later the breaks will start to fall their way. That seemed to happen for two-thirds of them at Kentucky.

"I sure hope (this is a sign of things to come)," Kenseth said. "I felt bad Denny had his problem there; I've got to get to the bottom of what happened there. Denny qualified real well so I was hoping all three of us would have a good night. ... I thought Kyle (Busch) was real competitive -- I thought all three of our cars were pretty good all weekend."

Busch kept his expectations in check, but is keen enough to know they can build off Kentucky and get on a serious roll in the coming weeks. The JGR stable has combined for seven wins at the next two race tracks.

"I mean, this is one week," Busch said. "We certainly need to be able to do it weekly on the intermediates. I don't think we have another one for a few weeks. We go to Daytona next week, crap shoot, we go to Loudon, which is a short track, so hopefully we run well there like we did last year -- I think Kenseth and I finished 1‑2, so it's certainly a step in the right direction."

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