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JOE GIBBS RACING OFF TO A FAST START IN THE CHASE
The Chase for the Sprint Cup has started much like the tail end of the regular season as Joe Gibbs Racing is establishing a dominant presence once again.
Matt Kenseth won Sunday at New Hampshire to give JGR a sweep of the first two races of the Challenger Round, following up Denny Hamlin’s winning performance the previous week in the Chase opener at Chicagoland. The win was a series-leading fifth for Kenseth and the JGR quartet, which also includes Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, has now combined for 13 Sprint Cup victories this season. A glance at the owner’s standings after 28 races also shows three JGR cars in the first three spots with Kenseth, Hamlin and Edwards, respectively.
“This is a thrill for us,” team owner Joe Gibbs said following Kenseth’s victory. “To get that many victories, particularly in this sport, is so tough, and it's just great to see Matt today. I thought it was a great race on he and (crew chief) Jason's (Ratcliff) part because they kind of sat around there fifth, sixth, somewhere in there, kept working their way forward and kept getting the car better and better, and I think at the end it was real good. Hey, it's great to be a part of something like this.”
With two cars already securing their spot in the Contender Round, JGR can now focus on getting its other two cars to the next round. Edwards, situated in third, would appear to be a lock to make it on points even if he doesn’t win at Dover this weekend, but Busch is another story.
Busch found trouble at New Hampshire midway through the race when his right front tire went down and he hammered the wall. The team was able to repair some of the heavy damage and get him back out on the track, but he finished 37th. The outing dropped to 13th and he trails Dale Earnhardt Jr. by one point in that 12th and final transfer spot to the next round.
“We all know that there's a lot of excitement because you're going in little three-race playoffs, and all it takes is one mistake,” Gibbs said. “Kyle today, felt awful for him, cut a tire down, and it shows you how things can turn very quickly. So it's a thrill for us to have two cars in, and we just need to focus this next week on Carl and Kyle.”
The simplest way for Busch to advance to the next round is to win, and he is no stranger to Victory Lane at Dover. He has two victories at the Monster Mile, nine top-fives, and 13 top 10s in 21 career starts at that track. He and the other three drivers that are facing elimination – defending Sprint Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer – all need to try and get a win at a track where Jimmie Johnson has won 10 times in his career.
Kenseth had good fortune on his side to grab the win as a dominant Harvick ran out of fuel with three laps remaining in the 300-lap race and he seized the lead and eventual victory.
"I was giving Kevin everything I had," Kenseth said. "I thought he had us beat. He had the better car. Obviously I ran as hard as I could to get as close as I could to him because I wanted to beat him, and the faster he has to go obviously he burns more gas.
“With four or five to go, I didn't think I was going to quite get to him and get by him,” he added. “Getting to him and getting by him was going to be two different things, too, but I didn't think I was going to quite get there, and honestly (crew chief) Jason (Ratcliff) told me he was going to be close and he was probably going to run out, but I didn't 100 percent believe him. So I was a little surprised when I saw him pull down with a couple to go.”
The victory secures Kenseth an automatic berth in the next round of the Chase, the Challenger Round that kicks off Oct. 10 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I’m pretty darned excited to win this race,” Kenseth said. “These are all big races. They're hard to win. You ever get in a position to win one, you want to do everything in your power to be able to win it, no matter what the consequences are for the points, so I've got to be honest, I haven't really thought about the points or Chase or anything, just going to really enjoy this win and look forward to going to Dover next week.”