Matt Kenseth won Sunday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway with no tires. Figuratively speaking, of course.
Trailing a dominant Jimmie Johnson for most of the afternoon, Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff gambled on a fuel-only pit stop with 24 laps remaining and moved to the front of the field when the rest of the cars on pit road added two tires and fuel.
Johnson, who had led 182 of the 243 laps at that point, spun out on the restart, and Kenseth and his worn tires never gave up the lead, beating Jamie McMurray to the finish line by 0.699 seconds.
Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch rounded out the top five in a race that was postponed from Saturday night by repeated rain showers.
“I didn’t roll the dice, Jason did,” Kenseth said of the decision to eschew new left-side tires after entering the pits in fourth place.
“I thought he was slightly crazy at the time,” Kenseth added. “I thought we had about a 5-percent chance of winning if something didn’t happen to the 48 (Johnson). But if we would’ve gotten two tires and came out behind the 48, I thought we had almost a 0-percent chance.”
Kenseth took the outside spot on the restart and jumped ahead of Johnson, who ended up spinning when Logano tried to go underneath him in Turn 1.
“The 20 (Kenseth) broke the pace-car speed, which you aren’t supposed to do, but they aren’t calling guys on that so I need to start trying that in the future,” said Johnson, the Sprint Cup points leader who fell all the way to 25th before rallying to finish ninth and expand his lead from 25 to 38 points ahead of Carl Edwards.
“I certainly didn’t feel like I did anything wrong from where I was,” Kenseth argued. “But you know, after dominating all day and you have a problem at the end, I imagine it’s frustrating.”
Also feeling frustrated was defending race winner and Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who got turned by Kurt Busch and slammed from behind by Greg Biffle just 48 laps into the race. Keselowski, who won Friday night’s Nationwide race, finished 33rd to fall from ninth to 13th in the point standings.
Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top 10, while pole-sitter Dale Earnhardt finished 12th.
The race featured 11 changes among six drivers. Kenseth led for 14 laps earlier in the race (95 to 108) before cashing in Ratcliff’s gamble to lead the final 24.
“I felt with as many laps as we had on our tires, most guys would have taken two,” Ratcliff said. “There’s a lot of smart guys sitting on the pit boxes, and I know how aggressive you have to be to win one of these because it’s so competitive. I thought it was worth a shot.”
The win was Kenseth’s fourth in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, and it came nearly a year to the day after he announced he would be leaving Roush Fenway Racing after 13 seasons.
The four wins are the most of any driver this year, and three of those victories — including Sunday’s — have come on 1.5-mile ovals, which make up five of the 10 races in the Chase.
“We’ve got a lot of racing to do before we get to the Chase,” said Kenseth, who won the series championship in 2003. “We know we have to continue to get better. Just because you’re great today doesn’t mean you’ll be great a month from now.”