BRISTOL, TENN. – For all the times that Kasey Kahne has complained about Joe Gibbs Racing drivers taking advantage of his No. 5 team, when push came to shove on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, the Hendrick Motorsports driver was reluctant to do either.
Over the final 13 laps of the Irwin Tools Night Race, Kahne motored his Chevy up to Matt Kenseth's door, ahead of his car and behind him. On the penultimate lap, Kahne's spotter Kevin Hamlin gave him an open invitation, "Coming to the white, whatever you need to do."
But when Kahne couldn't pass Kenseth's Toyota cleanly, he simply took the safe route to the finish -- 0.188 seconds behind the No. 20 car.
So why didn't Kahne use the chrome horn?
"I don't have any experience doing it for one, and for two, that's just kind of how I've always raced," Kahne said. "I think at the end of the day, I just don't wreck people."
And that's what makes Kahne an easy target.
Yes, Kahne's second-place finish enabled the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports driver to vault into eighth-place in the Chase standings. With two victories, he likely has nothing to worry about. However, a third win could have elevated his crew in the standings once the bonus points are recalculated and the drivers are seeded for the Chase.
Kenseth in turn earned the win -- and the momentum with two races to decide the Chase to the Sprint Cup field. He was gracious in victory -- his fifth of the season. He expressed his appreciation to Kahne for racing him "fairly" as well as his gratitude to the team.
But after a six-race winless drought, Kenseth put the rest of the field on notice, "Best team in the business, we got our mojo back it's time to get serious."
Kenseth's timing couldn't be better. His win not only secures his position in the "playoffs," it also has rebuilt the team's confidence to contend for the title over the final 10 races.
"I'm not always a huge believer in momentum as far as just looking at paper and looking at finishes, but I am a believer in momentum as far as performance, and I think this weekend was huge for us," Kenseth said. "Even if we would have ran second and got beat at the end, I think it would have been a very encouraging weekend, it would have been a shot in our arm, like man, we had all our speed back. We led some laps. We haven't really led multiple laps since Kentucky really. So the whole weekend for me was really encouraging from a team standpoint.
"Hopefully, that gives you momentum. The next 12 weeks are the most important 12 weeks of the season, so I feel like approach every race the same, go out with the idea of trying to qualify the best you can and prepare like you're going to go try to win the race."
Certainly, Kahne will have a similar strategy over the final 12 weeks. But if the Chase is determined by what lengths the drivers will go to get there, Kahne may have shown his hand on Saturday night.
"I needed a win bad, but I also needed a finish and I just didn't do anything crazy," Kahne said.
And that's just fine with Matt Kenseth.
WILL THE REAL JUAN PABLO PLEASE STAND UP?
Juan Pablo Montoya entered driver introductions to Foreigner's Hot Blooded on Saturday night.
And yes, the Colombian turned up the heat at Bristol. By the second caution on Lap 91, Montoya had gained 13 positions and was running third. He maintained a position in the top five and was battling Carl Edwards for the lead on Lap 316. But a speeding penalty on Lap 336 pit stops knocked him to the tail end of the field.
"I'll get us back up there, don't worry," said crew chief Chris Heroy.
Montoya restarted 26th on Lap 343 and in 50 laps, he was battling in the top 15. After the final caution on Lap 447, the team elected not to pit and Montoya lined up seventh for the 47-lap finale. By Lap 458, Montoya moved up to second, but couldn't catch Matt Kenseth. Kasey Kahne passed the No. 42 Target Chevy for second-place -- then Montoya waited for Kenseth and Kahne to battle it out.
"I was hoping they were going to wreck on the white flag to be honest," said Montoya, who inevitably settled for third.
Still, with Montoya posting his second top-five in the last three weeks, one has to wonder if the lame-duck driver would still have his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing ride if he'd simply turned up the heat before now.
"To be honest with you, where we are with the team and the result, if I got in, it's pretty good," Montoya said. "I'm still running until the end of the year with Target, and I want to make sure I can do the best for them."
Polesitter Denny Hamlin was making quite the comeback at Bristol before contact with Brian Vickers but finished 28th:
Hate it not only for my team but everyone else involved.. Absolutely nothing I could do once 55 cut down my right front tire.. #carlow
-- Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) August 25, 2013 NUMBERS GAME
3 -- Drivers have clinched Chase spots: Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth.
16 -- Lead changes by nine different drivers
119 -- Laps led by Carl Edwards before his engine failed on Lap 387.
After finishing sixth last week at Michigan and eighth on Saturday night, Marcos Ambrose was asked why he excels at Bristol Motor Speedway:
"Yeah, I guess a little bit of the Tasmanian Devil comes out in me. This is a really aggressive track and you've got to be aggressive all night. You've got to gnaw on that steering wheel and I just like getting up on the wheel like that. These are good nights to really test your mettle and see what kind of man or lady you are out there and get after it."