DOVER, Del. – Early on Sunday, Matt Kenseth looked primed to do the unprecedented: win a third consecutive race to open the Chase.
Kenseth's Joe Gibbs Toyota led 36 of the first 167 laps in Sunday's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway.
And virtually the only time Kenseth was out of the top five was at race's end, when he faded to seventh as Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick passed him by.
But that was enough to ruin a perfectly fine afternoon for Kenseth, looking to regain the NASCAR title he won in 2003. Kenseth, who entered the race 14 points ahead of Kyle Busch in the Chase standings, left Dover with only an eight-point cushion on five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
"Overall, for how bad I felt like we struggled with the car, that was a decent finish," Kenseth said. "(But) when you look up, it's everybody that finished in front of you. (They are) all the cars that you're racing for points."
Despite having a top-10 car all day, Kenseth never really felt comfortable with his setup on Sunday.
"We kind of missed it today," he said. "There are times that we've run a lot better than that. I certainly wanted to do better than that."
The final pit stop didn't help. In fact, Kenseth would have preferred that the race stayed green, even if it meant he and the other leaders would need to pit for a splash of fuel in the final laps.
"Jason (crew chief Ratcliff) said nobody who was going to win the race could really make it (on fuel). A lot of those cars that I think were going to try to make it were already a lap down, so I wish it would have (stayed) green to the end. I think that would have got us a top-three or four."
The unfortunate timing of the final caution was compounded by bad luck with the pit strategy on the final stop that sealed the disappointing finish.
"We got caught with being the last on two tires and restarting on the inside, which was really bad," Kenseth said.
As difficult for Kenseth to swallow was losing valuable points off his lead in the Chase was failing to perform up to his expectations at one of his favorite tracks.
Kenseth entered Sunday's race with a driver rating second to only Jimmie Johnson (in the previous 17 races at Dover) and 13 top-five finishes in his previous 29 starts at the mile oval.
"I feel like this is one of our best race tracks and you want to do better than seventh at one of your best tracks," he said. "Overall, it was a solid day, but we wished for a little more."
Kenseth said one silver lining is that he also likes some of the upcoming tracks on the schedule, including Kansas Speedway next week.
"I'm looking forward to getting there," he said.
By Seth Livingstone - Special to the NASCAR Wire Service