BRISTOL, Tenn. – Matt Kenseth used his first victory in more than a year to strengthen his frantic push to make NASCAR’s playoffs, winning at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night in dominating fashion.
Kenseth started from the pole and led a whopping 415 of the 500 laps for his first win since March 7, 2004. His team had struggled for most of the past year, but a late-season surge has helped him close in on qualifying for the Chase of the Championship.
“This feels great. I haven’t been in Victory Lane in a long time,” he said.
The top 10 drivers in the standings after the Sept. 10 race in Richmond make the Chase, and Kenseth’s victory pushed him to 11th in the points. He started the night 15th in the standings, but is just 11 points out of cracking the top 10.
“I thought we were out of it,” Kenseth said of the Chase. “There’s still a couple races to go, but we’re a lot closer. We’ll just go to California (next week) and give it all that we can. If we can run like (this) the last two races, we’ll make it.”
Jeff Burton was second, followed by Greg Biffle and Ricky Rudd.
Rusty Wallace, in his final race at his favorite race track, finished fifth. Wallace is retiring at the end of the season and had hoped to mark his final Bristol race with a win. Instead, he leaves with nine wins, most among NASCAR’s active drivers.
Jeff Gordon, who is also making a desperate push for the Chase, finished sixth. It pushed him into the top 10 in the points for the first time since June. If he can stay there for two more races, the four-time series champion will be eligible to race for the title.
The only driver to drop out of the top 10 after Bristol was Jamie McMurray, who dropped to 12th.
Meanwhile, the race wreaked havoc on many drivers on the bubble of making NASCAR’s Chase – and some of it was intentional.
Dale Jarrett, who started the race 11th in the points, lost ground midway through the race when contact from Ryan Newman sent him spinning. Apparently seeking payback, Jarrett later made a sharp right turn into Newman to wreck both of their cars.
NASCAR ruled that Jarrett’s move was intentional and penalized him two laps. The incident dropped Jarrett to 14th in the standings, and he’ll need a furious rally over the final two qualifying events to get into the playoffs.
Newman, who started the night clinging to the eighth spot in the standings, dropped one spot to ninth.
“Mine was unintentional. His was intentional, that was obvious,” Newman said. “I sure didn’t expect him to retaliate like that.”
The biggest loser was Kevin Harvick, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and couldn’t avoid getting caught up in Jarrett’s accident. Harvick desperately needed a strong finish to make the Chase, but ended up finishing 37th and will almost certainly miss the cut.
But in a sign of frustration with his Richard Childress Racing team, Harvick refused to get back in the car after enough repairs were made to get the Chevrolet back on the track.
Harvick eventually returned to the car, but after starting the night 14th in the points, he is now 16th.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., the defending race champion, finished ninth. But he’s 15th in the standings, a long shot to make the playoffs.
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