It was a question of experience, and Matt Kenseth knew he didn’t have the right answer and that Jeff Gordon did.
“Jeff’s experience got me,” he said.
And it gave Gordon the victory in the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, allowing him to catch Kenseth with 21 laps to go and win for the eighth time on NASCAR’s oldest short track.
“I just don’t have that much experience running up front here,” Kenseth said. “I had something that was working, but I was hurting the rear tires and ended up hurting the front tires, too.”
But Kenseth didn’t hurt himself in the big picture. Far from it, in fact, thanks to his runner-up fiinish.
Winless at Martinsville in 28 starts, he nonetheless made up four points on Jimmie Johnson — also an eight-time winner at Martinsville — and tied him for the lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
It was just about all Kenseth could have asked from the weekend.
“I felt like today was an opportunity to get a point lead back. I honestly did,” said Kenseth, who lost the lead to Johnson the week before at Talladega. “I felt like we were going to have a shot to win. I couldn’t be much happier, but I am disappointed I got beat there at the end.”
Kenseth had to do some fancy driving to hold off Clint Bowyer, who finished third, in a race with 17 cautions that had the race teams on different pit cycles and strategies.
Despite not hanging on, Kenseth wound up leading the most laps, gaining the bonus point that allowed him to tie Johnson.
“I just got beat by, honestly, experience and a better driver of this track,” Kenseth said. “I was hesitant to change my line and do the things he was doing, because what I was doing got me there. And I just got too tight at the end, which I wish I could do over.”
Gordon’s victory allowed him to remain part of the championship picture, but he is 27 points out; he’d have to make up nine spots a race over the next three events, starting this week at Texas Motor Speedway.
“We’ve been through a lot,” said Gordon, awarded a spot in the Chase by NASCAR following the Richmond results manipulation by Michael Waltrip Racing.
“Boy, this is making it all worth it. Just so proud of the team for never giving up. We’ve shown it all year long. We’ve been through a lot.”
Kevin Harvick is one point behind Gordon, in fourth, 28 points off the lead.
But the Chase heading to the AAA Texas 500 on Sunday afternoon in Fort Worth looks as though it’s a two-man race between Kenseth and Johnson. Kenseth holds a tiebreaker in season wins, 5-4.
“I’ve got to be totally honest with you,” Kenseth said. “I haven’t looked at the points. Somebody told me Jimmie and I are tied. I have no idea.”
Gordon had a good idea about what it meant to him and his outside chances.
“There’s no better time to win races than right now, and to be able to carry that momentum; I’m so proud to be third in the points,” he said. “We all want to win the championship, but I mean, from where we started early in the season; heck, where we started in this Chase, to be third in points right now? I’m very proud of that.”
Gordon has one victory at TMS. Johnson has two. Kenseth has three.
It’s possible that a Fort Worth weekend propels one of the contenders ahead of the others.
“We can’t get the cart ahead of the horse; we’ve got to appreciate that, but also take advantage of this momentum and confidence that we do have,” Gordon said. “And I can’t wait to get to Texas.
“When do we get to Texas?”