CONCORD, N.C. — Matt Kenseth won his only Cup title in 2003 and NASCAR immediately changed the championship rules.
He always resisted the urge to take it personally despite the overwhelming evidence that his methodical but nondescript season forced NASCAR to pump some life into the system by creating the current Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Now, eight years later, he’s finally back in the title hunt.
Kenseth won Saturday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, passing Kyle Busch on a restart with 25 laps remaining, to grab his first victory of this Chase.
It moved him two spots in the standings to third, and he’s only seven points behind leader Carl Edwards at the halfway point of the Chase.
“It doesn’t really matter to me that much what everybody thinks,” Kenseth said. “We’re in it or out of it or whatever. What’s important to me is trying to win races and trying to be competitive and go do the best job we can do every week.
“If somebody wants to say I’m boring or whatever — I was hired to try to go win races and try to run good and that’s what I try to do every week.”
But the path to the championship may have become just a little clearer Saturday night.
Five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson was in a hard accident that sent him spiraling in the standings.
He was running seventh with 17 laps remaining when contact with Ryan Newman sent him headfirst into the wall. The hit was so hard, his back tires briefly lifted off the track.
He finished 34th and dropped to eighth in the standings.
“That one stung for sure. Pretty big impact,” Johnson said.
Johnson, winner of last week’s race at Kansas, had started the race ranked third in points and only four points behind Edwards. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week, and had dismissed the idea of falling prey to the so-called cover jinx.
After notching his lowest Chase-race finish since he was 38th at Texas in 2009, he may now be wondering if the curse is credible.
“This is not going to help us win a sixth championship,” he admitted.
Because it can change so quickly, Kenseth was more even-keeled than normal in his celebration. It’s hard to look too far ahead with such a tight field and Talladega looming next week.
“What happened to Jimmie Johnson is a sobering lesson for everyone,” winning car owner Jack Roush said.
That’s probably what Kyle Busch thought, too, after dominating the race only to come up short in his bid for his first win in a Chase race.
Busch had to change his engine before the race and started last in the 43-car field. Although he was initially frustrated with his car, he rallied to lead a race-high 111 laps and finish second, his best showing so far in the Chase.
“We drove up through the field and we got in position to win the race … just got out drove there by Kenseth there on the restart,” Busch said. “He just flat out drove right past me like I was standing still. The frustration is, again, we did not finish where we wanted to, which could have been a real win, a real highlight.
“The next frustration is we have yet to win a Chase race, and I’m sure I’ll be hearing about that for the next four years if I continue that.”
Edwards finished third, but leaned into Busch’s car after the race to discuss what Edwards felt was aggressive driving in the closing laps.
“We should definitely be racing each other hard. It’s just that there’s a difference between racing hard and then cutting across the guy’s nose,” Edwards said. “I just let him know that next time that happens, I’ll just stay where I’m at and he can drive across my hood and wreck himself.”
But there was no chance in this one turning into a feud as Busch quickly diffused the situation.
“There was no malicious intent involved to cause anything or to hurt his chances at finishing second or anything,” Busch said. “It was just a product of what we had at the end going for everything we could, and trying to come home second.”
Edwards seemed to buy the explanation and the two shared the dais in the post-race news conference without incident.
“He told me that he didn’t mean to do it, and so I got to believe that,” Edwards said.
Kasey Kahne and Marcos Ambrose, two drivers not competing for the championship, finished fourth and fifth. It was the third straight top-10 finish for Ambrose, the first time in his career he’s pulled that off.
Kevin Harvick was sixth, and he went from one point behind Edwards to fourth.
“One of the goals we wanted to achieve was to get through these first five races, with not too much damage,” Harvick said.
“So five points, if you would have told me we would come out of Charlotte with only a five-point deficit going into the next five races, I would be really happy.”
AJ Allmendinger was seventh and was followed by pole-sitter Tony Stewart, who overcame late contact with Greg Biffle to finish eighth.
“We still have half of the chase races to go, a lot can happen,” Stewart said.
Denny Hamlin was ninth and Ryan Newman rounded out the top 10.
Kurt Busch was 13th, his Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski finished 16th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 18th, Jeff Gordon was 21st and Johnson was the lowest finishing Chase driver.