Matt Kenseth used his first victory in over a year to strengthen his frantic push to make NASCAR's playoffs, winning at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway last night in dominating fashion.
Kenseth started from the pole and led a whopping 415 of the 500 laps to win for the first time since March 7, 2004. His team had struggled for most of the past year, but a late-season surge has helped him close in on qualifying for the Chase of the Championship.
"This feels great. I haven't been in Victory Lane in a long time," he said. The top 10 drivers in the standings after the Sept. 10 race in Richmond make the Chase, and Kenseth's victory pushed him to 11th in the points. He started the night 15th in the standings, but is now just 11 points out of cracking the top 10.
"I thought we were out of it," Kenseth said of the Chase. "There's still a couple races to go, but we're a lot closer. We'll just go to California [next week] and give it all that we can. If we can run like [this] the last two races, we'll make it."
Jeff Burton was second and was followed by Greg Biffle and Ricky Rudd.
Rusty Wallace, in his final race at his favorite race track, finished fifth. Wallace is retiring at the end of the season and had hoped to mark his final Bristol race with a win. Instead, he leaves with nine wins, most among NASCAR's active drivers.
Jeff Gordon, who is also making a desperate push for the Chase, finished sixth. It pushed him into the top 10 for the first time since June. If he can stay there for two more races, the four-time series champion will be eligible to race for the title.
The only driver to drop out of the top 10 after Bristol was Jamie McMurray, who dropped to 12th.
Meanwhile, the race wreaked havoc on many drivers on the bubble of making NASCAR's Chase -- and some of it was intentional.
Dale Jarrett, who started the race 11th in the points, lost ground midway through the race when contact from Ryan Newman sent him spinning. Apparently seeking payback, Jarrett later made a sharp right turn into Newman to wreck both of their cars.
NASCAR ruled that Jarrett's move was intentional and penalized him two laps. The incident dropped Jarrett to 14th in the standings, and he'll need a furious rally over the final two qualifying events to get into the playoffs.
Newman, who started the night clinging to the eighth spot in the standings, dropped one spot to ninth.
"Mine was unintentional. His was intentional, that was obvious," Newman said. "I sure didn't expect him to retaliate like that."
* CHAMP CAR: Sebastien Bourdais has figured out how to post a fast qualifying time on Montreal's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Now, all the reigning Champ Car champion needs to do is get a handle on the race.
For the second straight year, Bourdais won the pole for the Montreal Molson Indy, turning the final qualifying session into a one-man show on the 2.709-mile, 15-turn road course winding around Notre Dame Island.
His fastest lap was clocked at 1 minute 20.396 seconds, a speed of 121.305 mph. Four of Bourdais's 13 laps would have been good enough for the pole, and a fifth would have put him second on today's 18-car grid.
Oriol Servia struggled through most of the 35-minute session before finally uncorking a lap of 1:20.698 (120.851 mph), which was good enough to give Newman/Haas Racing the entire front row. Servia, who also trailed Bourdais on Friday in the race for the provisional pole, was the only driver who came close to his flying teammate yesterday.
* IRL: Rookie Ryan Briscoe won his first career pole, posting the best time at Infineon Raceway for today's Argent Mortgage Indy Grand Prix in Sonoma, Calif.
Briscoe, 15th in the IRL IndyCar points standings, recorded a speed of 108.248 mph around the 12-turn, 2.26-mile road course, slightly better than the 108.130 he had in practice on Friday.
Helio Castroneves qualified second at 107.664, followed by Tony Kanaan at 107.346. The IRL, staging its first race on a permanent road course, established a unique qualifying format.