JOLIET, Ill. Matt Kenseth won the first race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup – NASCAR’s 10-race battle for its biggest championship.
Who didn’t see that coming?
Apparently nobody, even though Kenseth entered the Chase as its No. 1 seed and has won the most races this season.
It’s understandable, however. A weeklong dark cloud covered NASCAR as it spent several days investigating a team orders scandal that encompassed up to five teams.
Kenseth was left untouched by the scandal and he and his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team were left alone to prepare for Sunday night’s rain-delayed GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
“I wasn't involved in any of it, so I kind of enjoyed that,” said Kenseth, who is known more for flying under the radar than raising the ire of NASCAR officials. “It seemed like we came in as the first seed, which was really great, but we were in the shadows all week with everything going on.
“I was all right with that. We had a lot of space to work on our cars, talk about things, go do all that.”
It paid off with his sixth victory of the year – the most wins he’s earned in a season in his career. His previous high was five in 2002.
Four of Kenseth’s victories this season have come at 1.5-mile intermediate tracks – a good sign for his championship prospects considering four of the final nine races will be at similar tracks.
Kenseth is a former Cup series champion (2003) but his title came prior to NASCAR adapting its Chase format. Sunday night’s win was also his first at Chicagoland, which as a Wisconsin native is the closest he comes to having a hometown track.
Kenseth as much as anyone was happy to get back to on-track competition, even if it did include more than six hours of rain delays.
“I hope we can move on,” he said. “I think it’s been a tough week for not only some of the teams and stuff involved, but it’s a tough week for NASCAR.
“They don’t want to do any of that stuff. I don’t think they do. That part of it hasn’t been any fun for anybody.”
Kenseth’s toughest competition in the race came from teammate Kyle Busch, who held the lead on the final restart with 22 of 267 laps remaining. Kenseth powered around him shortly after taking the green flag and was never serious challenged the rest of the way.
Kyle Busch ended up second, Kevin Harvick was third, Kurt Busch was fourth and Jimmie Johnson was fifth.
“I think having (us) running up front like that shows that we’re capable of (winning the championship),” Kyle Busch said of JGR. “I tell you, Matt is really, really good at mile-and-a-half racing. He is fast. He’s won a lot of them this year.
“I typically in the past haven’t been great at it, but certainly this year have been better at it. It’s a testament to us all learning, sharing information, getting better.”
The win cemented Kenseth’s hold atop the series standings. With nine races left to decide the championship, he holds an eight-point lead over Kyle Busch and an 11-point advantage over Johnson.
Harvick is fourth in points and Carl Edwards is fifth.
Chase participants Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. took hard hits to their title hopes in the opening round of the 10-race Chase. Both ended their night in the garage with engine problems – Logano after 175 laps and Earnhardt after 224.
The race was the first run under a new set of rules implemented by NASCAR over the weekend to prevent teams from artificially altering the outcome of the event. NASCAR also unveiled new restart procedures in the pre-race drivers’ meeting.
None of the new rules came into play in the race.
“We didn’t really have anything different that affected what we did in the car,” Harvick said. “I didn’t notice anything different.”
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.
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