by Jeff Gluck, USA TODAY Sports
SPARTA, Ky. - Matt Kenseth's two daughters - Kaylin, 3, and Grace, 2 - busied themselves picking up pieces of confetti in matching flower dresses as their father posed for pictures with his Quaker State 400 trophy in Kentucky Speedway's victory lane.
It was the girls' fourth such experience after a Sprint Cup Series race this season - the most trips to victory lane for their dad since 2006.
"I don't think they totally get it," Kenseth said Sunday, then added with a laugh: "I know for sure they don't realize how hard it is."
So how's he done so far?
Kenseth, though, has made winning look easy. After leaving Roush Fenway Racing - where he won the 2003 championship and 24 races in 13 full-time seasons - for Joe Gibbs Racing in the offseason, there were questions as to how quickly Kenseth would adapt.
"It has not turned out real bad," Kenseth said after winning a race postponed a day by rain.
Kenseth is fifth in the points standings and a championship contender with more wins than anyone in the series. Once known as Mr. Consistent, Kenseth now is known more as a regular winner.
This one came courtesy of a call for fuel only on the final pit stop and beating Jimmie Johnson on a restart.
"I didn't roll the dice (crew chief) Jason (Ratliffe) did. I thought he was crazy when he made that call. Just an unbelievable season and year of my life," Kenseth said from victory lane.
"Jason did a great job. I didn't think there was any way we were going to hold on, but Jason obviously made the right call.
Said Ratliffe: "Well I knew if we could get Matt position, he would make a good fight out of it. We had a really good restart, and there were some good cars coming like the No. 1 (Jamie McMurray), but Matt was able pull it out.
"I knew that was going to be our only shot to get it done today. We can take some shots like these, we can take some chances."
Beating Johnson on the restart.
The "Anybody But Jimmie" crowd - a sizable portion of NASCAR fans exhausted by Jimmie Johnson's winning ways - spent much of Sunday groaning over what seemed another inevitable victory.
Johnson, who has won three races this year and dominated several others, looked to be cementing his reputation as the Sprint Cup Series championship favorite - a sixth to add to his five straight from 2006-10.
Johnson got snookered on a key restart for the second time this season and spun out moments later - allowing Kenseth to roll to victory despite having tires older than any other driver's.
"(Kenseth) broke the pace car speed, which you aren't supposed to," Johnson said after finishing ninth. "But they aren't calling guys on that, so I need to start trying that."
Kenseth seemed puzzled by Johnson's accusation and said he "didn't feel like I did anything wrong.
"But after dominating all day and you have a problem at the end, I imagine it's frustrating (for Johnson)," he said. "We've been there, too."
Now it is Kenseth who has a series-high four wins this season - including three on the type of tracks which make up half of the 10 races in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff.
Though Johnson remains the title favorite and points leader, Kenseth's win at another 1.5-mile venue showed everyone it could be a two-man duel. He also has wins at Las Vegas, Kansas and 1.366-mile Darlington.
Of course, Johnson could have more victories - possibly three - if not for some uncharacteristic mistakes. He also was fooled by Juan Pablo Montoya on another restart at Dover and was black-flagged. And he slapped the wall while chasing Greg Biffle in the final laps at Michigan.
"(Johnson) was class of the field all day, so we know we have to continue to get better," Kenseth said. "We are really, really good, but you always have to continue to get better."Hopefully we can give them a run for their money. That's what the plan is."
Class of the field
Kenseth has been the best Gibbs car this season. Though Kyle Busch has been stellar at times and has two wins, he's had trouble stringing together good finishes thanks to crashes and mechanical failures.
And Denny Hamlin? One of the preseason favorites for the Cup title, the No. 11 driver's season has quickly derailed. A broken back forced him to miss four races and most of a fifth, but there was still an outside chance for him to make the Chase. With four bad finishes in the last five weeks, though, Hamlin's playoff hopes are all but finished.
It wasn't just his points position that stung on Sunday. Hamlin twice blew tires, the second of which caused him to slam the wall so hard that he had a headache.
He went to the infield care center with complaints of head and knee pain, but said after he was cleared that he did not reinjure his back. He finished 35th.
"This is obviously another hit," Hamlin said of his Chase hopes.
Hamlin wasn't the only driver who left with a disappointing points day. Defending series and race champion Brad Keselowski was involved in a vicious crash early that caused the race to be red-flagged for nearly 19 minutes for cleanup.
Former teammate Kurt Busch tried to make an aggressive move on the track's apron, but unexpectedly bounced into Keselowski when he came back onto the banking. Keselowski was turned and tried to save the car, but he drifted into oncoming traffic and was rear-ended so hard by Greg Biffle that the back tires of his No. 2 Ford were lifted off the ground. Several other cars piled in.
Busch apologized on the radio and on Twitter afterward, but Keselowski was miffed.
"I am still wrecked, so I don't know," said Keselowski, who dropped four spots to 13th in the standings after finishing 33rd. "He is smarter than that. He knows better than that.
"We were trying to get patient because it looked like we will get the whole race in before rain and there is no reason to drive like an animal. Apparently I am the only one that got that memo. It is one of those deals."
With the season's halfway point arriving next week at Daytona, Keselowski is currently outside of the Chase and winless since last September.
"We are just on a streak of bad luck," Keselowski said. "It will turn around, and when it does, we will be in victory lane and be alright."