Monday morning NASCAR recap: Pit road gamble pays off for Kenseth

USA TODAY Sports

Fortune favors the bold, as Matt Kenseth uses pit strategy to topple Jimmie Johnson at Kentucky.

It was a gamble; the NASCAR equivalent of throwing a Hail Mary at the end of a football game. And it was a decision that even Matt Kenseth described as "slightly crazy."

But on a day when the hot sun, a bumpy Kentucky Speedway track and aerodynamics combined to make track position of the utmost importance, crew chief Jason Ratcliff knew he had to get his driver in front by all mean necessary.

So he rolled the dice and skipped putting tires on Kenseth's No. 20 car during his final pit stop.

It was a decisive choice that ultimately won the Quaker State 400 for Kenseth.

"Obviously, you look back right now, it's a great call," Kenseth said. "It was the only one that gave us a chance to win the race. I didn't think if we did what they did and restarted second, third, fourth or fifth, we really had a chance to win the race."

Initially, however, it appeared the strategy would backfire. While Kenseth may have vaulted into the lead with 22 laps to go, he was restarting beside Jimmie Johnson, who to that point had led 182 circuits and whose car was clearly superior.

This is a different Johnson, though, one that in the last month has proved fallible. He has especially struggled with restarts, a defect that has already cost him a victory this season at Dover.

If Superman's weakness was kryptonite, then Johnson's limitations are restarts late in races where he should clearly win.

This flaw was on full display Sunday when he again blundered and couldn't get up to speed when the green flag waved. His hesitation allowed Joey Logano to charge and when Johnson tried to throw a block he spun himself out. And in an instant Kentucky became another race in an increasingly long list that Johnson should have won but didn't.

"The 20 should be penalized for stopping everybody on that f****** restart," Johnson vented over the radio to his team.

Despite Johnson's assertion otherwise, Kenseth wasn't playing any games and was correctly not issued a penalty by NASCAR. He was the leader, meaning he could dictate the speed and not Johnson.

"I certainly didn't feel like I did anything wrong from where I was," Kenseth said. "But you know, after dominating all day and you have a problem at the end, I imagine it's frustrating. We've been there, too."

That Kenseth was in that position to force Johnson into a mistake goes back to Ratcliff's gutsy decision on pit road.

To win races sometimes you need to go outside the box. And on an afternoon when the 20 team didn't have the necessary speed to win outright, sometimes the best strategy is to do the opposite of conventional thinking.

"You have to think that there's a lot of smart people in this sport and a lot of smart guys sitting on the pit box" Ratcliff said. "They know how aggressive you have to be to win one of these; just so competitive.

"I thought it was worth a shot to get out there, I felt like definitely we would be at a disadvantage."

Kenseth now has a Sprint Cup Series-best four victories this season and would be the No. 1 seed if the Chase began today. Fittingly, his Kentucky triumph came on the one year anniversary of his decision to leave Roush Fenway Racing for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Perhaps more importantly, he fully exposed the soft spot of a team long thought to be insuperable.

Johnson's inability to figure out restarts has left him cantankerous and susceptible, while Chad Knaus' pit strategy as of late has often put his driver at a disadvantage.

Although Johnson is still the championship favorite, don't sleep on the team with a driver championship on his résumé and a crew chief who doesn't hesitate to be daring.

"[The] 48 was class of the field all day," said Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion. "So we know we have to continue to get better. We are really, really good but you always have to continue to get better.

"Hopefully we'll be running how we're running, or even get better, and you know, going into the Chase, hopefully we can give them a run for their money; that's what the plan is."

If there is a lesson to be learned from Kentucky, it's don't bet against Kenseth and Ratcliff from doing just that.

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