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Sylvania 300

Allen Lessels' Motorsports Notebook: No signs of slowing down for Kenseth

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 22. 2013 9:59PM

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Matt Kenseth (20) celebrates his victory of the Sylvania 300 race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

LOUDON -- THE LAPS ticked off without him.

Thirty-three laps to go, 32 laps to go, and still crew guys surrounded Kasey Kahne's Great Clips Chevrolet in the garage area.

Now 30 laps remained in Sunday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and a grim-faced Kahne walked back to his car. He climbed in the window and put on his helmet and a crew guy pulled his safety net up and he drove back onto the racetrack.

By then, though, it was much too late.

There was no way to make up ground and Kahne ended up 37th in the race, dealing his chances in NASCAR's 2013 Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship a major blow.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kahne's teammate at Hendricks Motorsports, knows the feeling.

Earnhardt had engine problems in the first race of the Chase last week at Chicago and dropped to the rear of the pack among championship contenders.

Fact of the matter is, it's only two races into the Chase and already a title run is looking like a longshot for all but a few drivers.

Matt Kenseth is making a shambles of the race early on and so far only Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson are keeping him in sight.

Kenseth, who won his second straight race and seventh of the season in his 500th career start on Sunday, hasn't surprised his good buddy Earnhardt with the year he has put together, his first with Gibbs.

"I told him when he went over there that he was going to set the world on fire, man," Earnhardt said. "I don't want to pull for him because they don't drive Chevys and they wreck Kasey a lot, but I told Matt, 'You ain't going to believe how good you are going to run and how great it's going to be for you and your career. You're just really going to enjoy yourself.'"

Kenseth is doing all of that.

"I mean, I thought he was getting in a better deal," Earnhardt said.

"I know Joe and Mr. Gibbs and they're really, really, really good people and they'll take good care of him."

Kenseth won the 2003 Sprint Cup title with his former team, Roush Fenway, and is taking aim at another title.

He leads Kyle Busch by 14 points and Johnson by 18 and no other driver is closer than 36 points. There are a maximum of 48 points available in each race.

At the other end of the standings, Earnhardt needed a big bounce-back week and got it with a sixth-place finish.

Still, he's far back in 11th place and 68 points behind Kenseth. Joey Logano is in 12th and a point behind Earnhardt. Kahne is 13th and two more points back.

Kahne had the roughest day on Sunday. He ran in the top five much of the day and was seventh when he ended up in the wall on the front stretch with 50 laps to go.

He wasn't sure how he ended up there.

"I really don't know what happened," Kahne said. "Just racing and I'm not really sure if there was contact or if I just spun. . . . I hit the inside wall, but I'm not sure how I got there."

What he does know is that his championship hopes are in jeopardy.

So are those of Earnhardt and Logano and a bunch of other guys — heck, everybody can forget it, if Kenseth keeps this up.

"I mean, if Kenseth keeps doing what he's doing, it's not going to matter what anybody else does," said Jeff Gordon, a teammate of Earnhardt, Johnson and Kahne.

Gordon led the race twice for a total of 36 laps and finished in 15th place. He squandered a chance for a better result when he slid barely through his pit box on a pit stop with just under 100 laps to go. The mistake cost him all kinds of track position.

He's in eighth place, 42 points behind Kenseth.

There's no sense thinking about the points race as far as he's concerned, Earnhardt said.

"I'm not worried about it," he said. "We're just going to try to win races. We tried to win this one today. If we could have done a couple of things different on restarts and I could have drove it a little better, we might have been able to win. But Matt was pretty fast."

Yes, he was. Has been all season. And sure, there may be eight weeks to go starting in Dover, Del., next week, but he isn't showing any sign of slowing down. On Twitter: @AllenLessels

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