Matt Kenseth overcame a pit road speeding penalty to finish fourth in the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. However, the result wasn't enough to keep him in a tie with Jimmie Johnson for the Sprint Cup points lead.
By a hefty margin of 4.3-seconds over second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson cruised to a relatively easy victory Sunday, his sixth of the season. And because he led the most laps and collected a max of 48 points, Johnson leads Kenseth by seven with two races remaining.
"I'm very excited about our performance and what we did here," Johnson said. "We'll enjoy this, but there is still two weeks of very hard racing ahead of us."
Struggling with a loose car throughout the afternoon, Kenseth had been running second prior to the pit road infraction at Lap 173. It was a punishment Kenseth admitted he deserved, saying he was "too aggressive."
After serving his penalty Kenseth dropped to 16th, and began his slow climb back through the field. With Johnson putting on a pervasive display of dominance, that Kenseth was able to charge back to finish fourth was critical. Heading into next weekend's race at Phoenix International Raceway, Kenseth remains within reasonable striking distance.
"The math works out if you win the last two races," Kenseth said. "It's still in our hands, it's not like we have to have somebody have trouble. If we go out there and can out run everybody for two weeks then it's ours. We just go with that mindset and we're still in this thing after eight weeks and we're going to go try to get it."
If there were any questions that it was a two-man battle for the championship, the notion was reinforced Sunday as Johnson and Kenseth continue to distance themselves from the rest of the pack.
Entering Texas, Martinsville winner Jeff Gordon was ranked third, while Kyle Busch sat fifth overall. But each was a victim of a blown tire and sustained damage to varying degree.
Busch escaped with minimal damage from his run-in the Turn 3 on Lap 58. His team fixed his wounded Toyota, and Busch recovered by driving his way up to second, before he too incurred a penalty for speeding on pit road. He would finish 13th, gaining one spot in the standings.
It was Gordon, however, who suffered the most.
Running in the top-10, Gordon pounded the Turn 1 wall when his left-front tire exploded on Lap 73. The damage was such to his car it required an extensive stay in the garage for repairs. The four-time Cup champion finished 38th and fell to sixth in the standings, 69 points back of Johnson.
"It is so unfortunate," Gordon said. "You just can't have things like this happen if you are going to make a run at a championship or battle with those guys."
Due to Gordon's misfortune Kevin Harvick moved to third on the strength of an eighth-place run. But 40 points out first it's going to take severe misfortune befalling Johnson and Kenseth for Harvick to have any chance of securing his first Cup title.
On the heels of his third runner-up finish in six weeks, Dale Earnhardt Jr. jumped two spots in the championship to fifth.
Sprint Cup standings (34 of 36 races complete)
|5||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||2280||-62||0|
|16||Martin Truex Jr.||922||-1420||1|
|20||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||855||-1487||0|