Because his car was too loose to run on the bottom, he picked the middle just before a 25-car accident on the last lap, avoiding disaster all around him and collecting the win.
“Today we ended up with the car a little bit on the free side, and we tried adjusting it out, but we really couldn’t get it out,” Kenseth’s crew chief Jimmy Fenning said. “I feel bad for Matt having to drive it that free, but at the end we ended up with the trophy.”
It was an odd ending, to say the least.
Most of the time when a driver leaves Talladega with major damage, they’re spitting rivets from looking at the twisted sheet metal of their cars.
That was not the case for Jeff Gordon, who finished second.
“I hit (Kasey Kahne) and (Kyle Busch) hit me, and it just turned me right down the apron and I drove by pretty much everybody but (Kenseth),” Gordon said. “So, we got really lucky there.”
With NASCAR freezing the field and going to video to review, the first two places were set, and Kyle Busch was third. David Ragan and Regan Smith rounded out the top five.
Points leader Brad Keselowski finished seventh, good enough to retain the lead in the chase, now up 14 points over Jimmie Johnson, who finished 17th.
Kevin Harvick spun Jamie McMurray to bring out the day’s next-to-last caution, setting up the late-race drama. With the green-white-checkered finish a given, the consensus quickly became that drivers were in for the big one, the chaos they’d managed to avoid most of the day.
As the green flag dropped, the notion was reinforced.
A mass of cars racing four-wide around the track left little room for error, and the wreck began at the worst possible spot on the 2.66-mile tri-oval --- in the front.
Tony Stewart had lead going to the checkered flag, but Michael Waltrip built up a huge run with Casey Mears tucked to his back bumper. When the two pushed their way to the front, Stewart did all he could to protect his lead, something he called a mistake after exiting the infield car center.
“I just screwed up,” he said. “It was my fault. I’ll take it 100 percent of the blame. … I was trying to win the race.”
Stewart went low to block Waltrip, sending his left-rear quarterpanel into Waltrip’s nose. Stewart then turned sideways and headed back up the track, flipping as he started the chain reaction.
The field turned into a junkyard.
While Kenseth’s car may have been loose, it was not slow.
He arguably had the second-fast car on the track, next to McMurray, who led 38 of the 189 laps. Kenseth was second with 33 laps led.
But his looseness showed all day. On lap 47, Kenseth made a remarkable save going from the banking down to the apron after he’d gotten loose from a Greg Biffle push. Instead of ending in disaster, he went back on the track without a dent, and patiently worked his way back to the front.
“He had a couple of occasions where he could have wound up on his roof or on his side,” Roush said. “He managed to have the presence to be able not to do that --- the presence and skill not to let that happen.”
His powerful Roush Fenway car was a surprise to no one, as he’d led going into the final lap of every restrictor plate race this season. With today’s victory, he has wins in two of the four events.
While Roush gave credit to Kenseth, who he will part ways with at the end of the season, he also gave credit to Fenning for the loose, but fast ride.
“Jimmy Fenning is really good at his trade, and when he rolls his car into the tech line, I’ve got every confidence that he’s gotten every bit of consideration that the tech people will allow,” Roush said. “He gets a lot of speed out of the cars where a lot of people couldn’t.”
Bran Strickland is the assistant managing editor for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3590 or follow him on Twitter @bran_strickland.