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DOVER, Del. -- In most any other circumstance, salvaging a top-10 finish with a less-than-perfect car and difficult track position on the final restart might have been just fine for Matt Kenseth. But in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, the final result was only a missed opportunity.
Trying to become the first driver ever to win the opening three races of NASCAR's playoff, Kenseth instead found himself scrambling for whatever he could get in the final laps at Dover International Speedway. His No. 20 car wasn't the indomitable machine it had been in the first two Chase events. A last-minute, two-tire stop in the waning laps left him in a tough spot on the final restart. It all added up to a seventh-place finish, which certainly looked good given the circumstances, but in the bigger picture left something to be desired.
"We wanted to finish better than that," Kenseth said as winner Jimmie Johnson celebrated on the frontstretch. "We led a few laps, we qualified good, we finished in the top 10. But usually we come here racing for second to the 48 (car of Johnson). The way they run, running seventh every week isn't going to be good enough to win a championship. But on an off day, and when I feel like we really missed it in the setup quite a bit, or on the car, whatever we did there, seventh is still pretty good."
Johnson's eighth career victory at Dover allowed him to jump one spot in the standings to second, and trim Kenseth's series lead to eight points. Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch had finished first and second in each of the first two Chase events, and Busch fell to third in the standings -- 12 behind the leader -- despite a fifth-place result Sunday. The next-closest drivers, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon, are tied 39 points off the pace.
While the No. 20 car never seemed quite perfect -- Kenseth battled a loose condition for much of the race -- the 2003 series champion led 36 laps, and was second behind Johnson when a debris caution with 29 circuits remaining turned a likely fuel mileage race into a battle of pit strategy. Johnson took two tires, and Kenseth's crew chief Jason Ratcliff planned to go with four -- until a slight hang-up on the right rear led him to call an audible and take just two.
Johnson's two-tire stop allowed him to get out first, and maintain track position that helped him outrun Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and win the race. Kenseth, meanwhile, was stuck in an impossible position -- as the last car on two tires, ahead of everyone else with four, and on the slower inside lane on the restart to boot. He slid back at the green flag, ultimately finishing behind six other Chase drivers all trying to make up ground.
"We kind of missed it today," Kenseth said. "But there are times we ran a lot better than that. We got caught being the last car with two tires, we restarted on the inside, which was really bad, and still savaged a respectable finish. But certainly, I wanted to do better than that."
Busch could relate. His fifth-place finish gained him two points on his teammate, but still lost a position to Johnson. "It's certainly appealing and you could be happy with it, but we're a little disappointed at the same time," he said. "We felt like we wanted to come in here, we wanted to run better, we could run better here. We have before, and we just could never really get the feel that I was looking for the whole weekend with the front tires."
Sunday marked the first time Johnson has finished ahead of Kenseth in over a month, since the Aug. 11 race at Watkins Glen. "I think any points on (Busch) and (Kenseth) would have been a pretty good day. Max points, it's an awesome day," said Johnson, who also earned bonus points for leading the most laps.
"I feel like we had cars capable of winning the first two races much like the 20 and the 18 did," Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus added, referring to the car numbers of Kenseth and Busch. "? We're just trying to establish a foundation, and trying to set ourselves up for the second half of the Chase. As long as we do that, we'll be in good shape."
For now, though, Kenseth remains in front -- and heading to another favorable track, Kansas Speedway, where he's won the last two times out. Of course, he also had two career victories at Dover, where Sunday's result would have been considered a good points day -- if every point weren't as valuable as they are now, in a Chase where the performances of the top three drivers are leaving little room for error.
"You feel like it's one of your best race tracks," Kenseth said, "and you want to do better than seventh at one of your best tracks, and not let all the guys you're racing beat you. All in all it was a solid day, but we wished for a little bit more."
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