FORT WORTH, Texas – Matt Kenseth finally has that contending feeling again courtesy of a long-awaited return to Victory Lane.
"You keep working as hard as you can at it. And you try to get the cars going the best you can, and hopefully have some more chances to win," the former Sprint Cup champion said after breaking a two-year, 76-race winless streak with a dominating run at Texas. "It gives you a lot of confidence, and it's a big relief."
For the first time since opening the 2009 season with consecutive victories at Daytona and California, Kenseth was a NASCAR Sprint Cup winner again Saturday night, when he led 169 of 334 laps in his No. 17 Ford. He fronted an impressive showing by Roush Fenway Racing, which had its four drivers in the top seven.
Still, it was special for Kenseth to be the one holding the unique trophy and firing off the six-shooters that are part of the postrace celebration at Texas Motor Speedway.
"I can't say how proud I am to be here with Matt, realizing that he's not gotten the success that his effort has deserved in the recent past," car owner Jack Roush said.
"Although we would like to win, that is pretty cool to see Matt in Victory Lane," said teammate Carl Edwards, who finished third and took over the season points lead.
After his fast start with two victories in 2009, Kenseth didn't even qualify for the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship that season, missing NASCAR's playoff for the only time since its inception in 2004. He got back into the Chase last season, and finished 16th or better in each of the last races with four top-10s.
Kenseth had led only five laps in the first six races this season, but the 39-year-old Wisconsin native got to Texas coming off three consecutive finishes in the top six and had been in the top 12 for every race since an accident in the season-opening Daytona 500 led to a 34th-place finish.
"I felt better the last six months. Everything's been looking up. Certainly the previous 12 months before that were frustrating for me," said Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion. "It's been a long time, and we've had a lot of fun going to the racetrack here the last two months the last year, and the first part of this year. It feels like we're back into a contending form."
While the season is still young, the victory at Texas pushed Kenseth up six spots to third in season points behind Edwards and Kyle Busch, who was on top before finishing 16th at Texas. Busch had led at least 151 laps in each of the last three races this season, but never got out front in Texas.
Edwards finished third despite being bothered by an upset stomach from eating something his mother made him, apparently hitting a bird during the race and dealing with a loose car the entire race on a warm, windy night in Texas.
Greg Biffle was fourth four Roush and teammate and polesitter David Ragan seventh, the best finish of the year for both.
It was the eighth Cup victory for Roush in Texas, and his 16th overall NASCAR win there. Roush swept the weekend races with Edwards winning the Nationwide race Friday night.
At the 1½-mile, high-banked Texas track Saturday night, Kenseth started fourth and stayed at or near the front for all 501 miles while leading nine different times. What others may view as boring translated into a dominating victory.
"We had such good track position and pit stops and pit strategy and qualified well, so we really never got behind, which is obviously a big advantage," Kenseth said. "It always feels good to win no matter how you can win. More times than not, the fastest car ends up winning, and I thought that happened."
The only times Kenseth was trailing late while on the track were behind Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch when they both were out of sequence on stops and tried to stretch fuel in hopes of catching a caution. Luckily for Kenseth, there were no yellow flags at the wrong time.
Kenseth surged ahead to stay ahead to stay with 13 laps to go when Busch had to make his final stop and give up a 8.2-second lead. Kenseth finished 8.315 seconds ahead of Clint Bowyer and 17 seconds in front of Edwards.
Busch, who led five times for 50 laps, finished 10th.
With 58 laps to go after 58 laps since his last stop, Stewart had nearly a 17-second lead over Kenseth when he made his last stop. But he was penalized for speeding on pit road.
Stewart was running third until running out of fuel on the last lap and coasting across the finish line in 12th, the driver-owner of the No. 14 being the last car on the lead lap.
"You know, it took almost the whole race to crack the top 10, so to be in the position we were in there at the end, I guess is a good thing," Stewart said. "But when you're in that position and you can't capitalize, it's pretty frustrating. Speeding on pit road didn't exactly help the cause either."