RICHMOND, Va. – Joe Gibbs Racing cemented itself as the team to beat for NASCAR’s championships with a dominating run Saturday night that ended in Matt Kenseth’s fourth win of the season.
The win put Kenseth in a tie with JGR teammate Kyle Busch and six-time champion Jimmie Johnson for the top seeds in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. The 10-race playoff series begins next Sunday at Chicagoland.
Kenseth has won three of the last six races, and JGR has won eight of the last 11.
“Certainly right now as a company we’re on a roll,” said Kenseth, who led 352 of the 400 laps.
The 16-driver Chase field was set in the regular-season finale, where only four spots were really up for grabs. Jamie McMurray clinched his berth as soon as he took the green flag, but Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer all had to protect their positions.
Gordon had to finish 17th or better to guarantee his slot, and he finished a solid seventh.
Bowyer was in a little bit more of a precarious position as he came to Richmond ranked 16th in the field and unable to afford any mistakes. He never doubted he was up for the challenge at one of his favorite tracks, and he finished 10th to give Toyota five cars in the Chase field.
It wasn’t supposed to be difficult for Newman or Menard, but the Richard Childress Racing drivers struggled the entire race. They both ended three laps down from the leaders, with Newman 20th and Menard 26th.
“We don’t know whether to be happy or sad, it was such a bad race for us,” Menard said of a postrace conversation he had with his crew chief. “Obviously very excited to be in the Chase, it was a goal that we set at the beginning of the year. We’ve had a lot of good runs this year, tonight just wasn’t one of them.”
Aric Almirola briefly tried to shake up the playoff picture by charging his way to the front to race with the leaders. He made it to fourth, but had nothing for the JGR cars. Had Almirola won, he’d have earned an automatic berth into the Chase and bumped another driver.
Instead, he’ll watch the championship race go on without him after he made it last season with a surprise victory at Daytona.
“Disappointed for sure; I drove my heart out,” said Almirola. “We were in it last year and we got a taste of what it was like to be in the Chase. This race team is a great race team and we wanted another shot at it, and we just came up short.”
It’s the first playoff berths for McMurray and Menard, and last for Gordon, who is retiring at the end of the season.
“It’s nice to be in the Chase and take that relief and take that breath and now go reset and see what we can do over the next 10,” Gordon said.
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