Thursday, May 24, 2018
Sports

Johnson nears sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup title as Kenseth falters

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Matt Kenseth had one of those rare seasons in which everything seemed to go right every time he got behind the wheel.

Until the one day he couldn't afford for anything to go wrong.

Kenseth had one of his poorest performances of the season Sunday, finishing 23rd in the Advocare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway to allow Jimmie Johnson to seize control of Sprint Cup's Chase for the Championship. Johnson, who started the day seven points ahead in the standings, finished third behind Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne to pad his lead to 28 points.

The five-time champion goes to Sunday's season finale at Homestead needing to finish 23rd or better to win the title.

Kenseth, who won his only championship 10 years ago, gave what sounded like a concession speech afterward.

"Of course I'm disappointed; we go there basically without a shot to win," Kenseth said.

Johnson, who had a mechanical failure in last year's season finale and finished 36th, wasn't ready to claim the title.

"We're heading into Homestead in the position we want to be in," Johnson said. "I'll have to go down there and run 400 miles. It's far from over. You've got to finish that race. Although we have a nice cushion, we still have to go down there and take care of business."

Harvick won at Phoenix for the second straight year, capitalizing when Carl Edwards ran out of gas coming to the white flag.

But all eyes were on Kenseth, who struggled for the first time in the Chase and for one of the few times this season. Kenseth had only finished lower than 23rd four times the entire season, and three were related to either engine failure or a crash.

But his car was off from the start, and he struggled to even tell crew chief Jason Ratcliff what adjustments to make on a Toyota he described at one point as "just not drivable."

"I don't even know what to tell you to fix, to be honest," Kenseth radioed. "I am so aero tight."

Figuring track position and clean air was the only fix, Ratcliff opted for a strategy of having Kenseth do the opposite of other drivers: If they pitted, Kenseth did not, and vice versa. It worked as Kenseth cracked the top 10, but then it backfired.

Moments after contact between Johnson and Edwards knocked Johnson out of the groove, a caution was called for Josh Wise's spin. The Joe Gibbs Racing crew botched the pit stop, changing strategy mid stop, and Kenseth compounded the problem by running over his air hose. His car had to be backed up before it could be serviced. It dropped him to 30th, two laps down, and he restarted behind Johnson at the one opportunity he had to make ground.

"I called left sides trying to get some track position, and I looked up and there weren't many cars coming down pit road, so I thought we might as well put four on it," Ratcliff said. "But when I called four, those guys had left-side tires in their hands and half of them went over the wall and had to come back to get the right-side tires. It's just a mess. … I made them look bad with the mix-up."

Kenseth said he never saw Sunday's performance coming. "Honestly, it was the first day like that, that we've had all season long," he said. "That just, gosh, that speaks volumes about my team. … It was an unfortunate, disappointing day, but man, we did the best we could do. We just were off."

Harvick, meanwhile, picked up his fourth win of the year, sailing by Edwards before the last lap to grab another memorable moment in a career with Richard Childress Racing that will end next week after 13 seasons.

The victory also put Harvick in the title race, albeit as a long shot, 34 points behind Johnson.

"We're talking about locking him in the Porta Potty, so that should sum it up," Harvick joked.

 
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