Kenseth wins, clinches Chase spot

A weekend sweep at Bristol keeps him soaring as a title contender.

Published August 27, 2006

BRISTOL, Tenn. - Matt Ken-seth needed a Bristol win last year to maintain any chance of making the Chase for the Championship.

His repeat win this year locked him into the playoffs, and possibly made him the driver to beat.

Kenseth continued his run toward the Chase on Saturday night by winning at Bristol Motor Speedway - his third consecutive NASCAR victory.

"If we can go into the Chase like this, we'll have a shot at the championship," he said. "The guys are operating at a championship level," Kenseth said. "I was worried about going into the Chase and not running good. But this is what it's about, bringing your best piece and go there and try to win some races."

His fourth win of the season clinched a spot in NASCAR's 10-race playoff format, which begins Sept. 17 in New Hampshire.

It also showed he's peaking at the perfect time. Tony Stewart got hot midway through the summer last year and streaked to his second Nextel Cup title.

Now Kenseth hopes to do the same. He is the first driver since the late Dale Earnhardt in 1987-88 to win the Bristol night race in back-to-back seasons.

"I feel like we're definitely a contender," Kenseth said. "But in this business, you've got to prove your worth each and every week. We have been taking it one week at a time and putting forth 100 percent effort each and every race."

Boy, has it shown.

Kenseth won last weekend's Cup event in Michigan, then Friday night's Busch series race at Bristol. He needed a gutsy pass of Kevin Harvick to get the Busch win, but this one came much easier.

He passed leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. with just over 50 miles to go, running him down and then sliding past when Earnhardt appeared to slow coming out of Turn 4. There was no looking back from there for Kenseth, the 2003 series champion.

Kenseth is second in points, and his back-to-back wins have sliced Jimmie Johnson's lead to seven.

"Matt Kenseth is at the top of his game," car owner Jack Roush said. "He didn't have the most dominant car, but he kept in there and kept working at it and noodled at it."

Kyle Busch finished second and was followed by Earnhardt, who had a terrible car when he arrived in Bristol and worked all weekend to salvage his title hopes.

Earnhardt, who came in 10th in the standings - on the bubble of making the Chase - moved up one spot to relieve the playoff pressure.

"I feel a whole lot better now as far as trying to get in," he said. "All of us have really just got to watch what we are doing - minimize mistakes and utilize every minute of practice we get."

Scott Riggs scored a season-high fourth-place finish followed by Jeff Gordon. The two exchanged heated words after the race, apparently disagreeing over the way they raced each other in the closing laps.

Brandon-born rookie Denny Hamlin was sixth. Johnson was 10th and clinched his Chase spot.

Mark Martin's Chase bid suffered with a 28th-place finish. He fell six spots to 10th; his night went bad early when he was called for pitting outside the box on his first stop.

"My heart is heavy for Mark Martin," Roush said. "He's 10th in the points right now, certainly we're in jeopardy there."

Kasey Kahne remained 11th in points with a 12-place finish and is 90 points out of the final spot with just two races to go.

Pole-sitter Kurt Busch suffered front-end damage when he ran into Reed Sorenson, then blew his transmission with just under 100 laps to go. He ended up 37th, ending his effort to make the Chase. Carl Edwards and Brian Vickers were also among the drivers eliminated; 13 are mathematically eligible.

No No. 6 for Martin in '07

The on-again, off-again nature of Mark Martin's plans for 2007 took another turn.

NASCAR.com reported that Martin will not drive a Roush Racing Ford next season in Nextel Cup, at least not full time.

"You won't see Mark Martin in a Roush Racing owned (Cup) program," team president Geoff Smith told the Web site before Saturday's race. "All our programs are sold out with the drivers we currently have. It was great of Mark to run this year.

"We're expecting Mark to be the lead guy in the (NASCAR) Truck series. That sponsorship is in place. We've got a couple of details to work out with Ford Motor Company, but that's where we expect to be. If he does more than that, it'll be supplemental."

Martin, 47, returned to run the Nextel Cup series this season in the No. 6 Roush Ford after initially indicating that he wanted to retire after last season.

Then a chain of events left Martin's seat open. Team owner Jack Roush, Martin's longtime friend and his employer since 1988, convinced Martin to drive one more season.

Martin said early this year that this would be his last season in the Cup series and that he would focus on the Truck series, which has a shorter schedule (25 races this season to 36 plus two nonpoints races in Cup).

But the past couple of weeks, Martin began addressing the possibility of returning for another Cup season, even a partial one.

"My primary focus is still to do the full (Trucks) schedule, and I would be very interested in an additional 10- to 12-race Nextel Cup schedule," Martin said Aug. 19. "We just don't know what that car would be at this point."

Todd Kleuver is scheduled to take over the No. 6 car in 2007. Kleuver is 18th in Busch series points this season with no top-five finishes and one top 10 in 25 starts.