Matt Kenseth finally gets rewarded with win after string of bad luck

DOVER, Del. -- Matt Kenseth can't remember a stretch of races in which he has performed so well and finished so poorly.

For a driver who had led all but one race in the first 11 of the 2016 season and have only one top-5 to show for it, Kenseth wanted badly to feel that he would eventually break through and win a race.

But he knows just how unfair the racing gods can get, and knows that, just because he had lost the Daytona 500 after leading on the last lap and continued to have fast cars, the cruelty of racing could keep him out of Victory Lane.

So his long-time-coming victory Sunday in the AAA 400 Drive for Autism came in just fashion -- a day when he didn't have the best car at Dover International Speedway, but he avoided many of the mistakes and the misfortune of others as he earned his first win of 2016 and 37th of his career.

Kenseth admitted winning at Dover doesn't necessarily take the sting out of losing the Daytona 500. But it helped.

"I feel like the way we've been running, eventually the law of averages are going to work out, you're going to get your wins, your finishes," Kenseth said. "It's going to happen sooner or later. ... I felt like it was a matter of time. But you can never take it for granted."

Kenseth put himself in position to win when he restarted second on Lap 355, one that turned into an 18-car pileup when race leader Jimmie Johnson had his shifter lock between second and third gears, causing his car to stall and those behind to pile into him.

Among those collected were Kevin Harvick (117 laps led) and Martin Truex Jr. (47 laps led), two of the drivers to have stout cars, along with Johnson and Brad Keselowski (49 laps led), who already had his day ruined when he ran into the back of the lapped, wounded car of Austin Dillon.

Even with some of the top cars wrinkled up or already in the garage, Kenseth couldn't breathe easy. Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott, both looking for their first career wins, challenged him over the final 35 laps. Kenseth, who had taken only two fresh tires on his pit stop with 51 laps remaining, never became a victim of not changing left sides because of the 14 laps of caution with a pair of two-lap green-flag runs that preceded a 35-lap green-flag dash to the finish.

"It was one of those days where everything lined up for us at the end of the race," Kenseth said. "We were the only one left out there with two [old tires], we got those couple short runs to kind of cycle everybody else's tires, give us a lot of caution laps to get our tires cooled down.

"It all worked out for us, kind of the opposite as I feel like it's been going the last couple months."

Kenseth also had the benefit that Larson still doesn't have the stomach to win a race dirty. He possibly could have wrecked Kenseth at some point for the lead but would rather wait beyond 87 career starts to win a race clean as opposed to in any way possible.

"I didn't want to do anything dirty," Larson said. "I respect Matt Kenseth a lot. He's definitely in my eyes the cleanest racer out there. He always races me with respect. I try to do the same with him.

"So I was just going to try and race him as hard as I could without getting into him to beat him. He's sitting in Victory Lane and I'm not, so maybe I need to do something a little bit different, but nothing crazy to take him out or anything."

Elliott also raced Kenseth clean for the few laps he challenged, before he lost momentum with Larson passing him late in the race to make another charge at Kenseth.

"We had our shot, we had a chance to do it today," Elliott said. "I didn't do it. It's as simple as that. Either you do or you don't, and we haven't yet."

Larson did have contact with Carl Edwards, another one of the top cars, as they battled for second with 40 laps left in the race, leaving the Edwards car in crumpled heap.

"I don't think he meant to do it, but it surprised me," Edwards said.

Kenseth also was surprised, but just at how he was able to make clean air his best friend as he held off Larson. He cleared lapped traffic with ease. He kept young, aggressive drivers from beating him, either teaching them some lessons on how to race Sunday or having his past (who can forget last year with him and Joey Logano?) teach them all they need to know about perceived right and wrong on the track.

His No. 20 team might have learned some lessons, too, over the first 11 races of 2016 where they watched their Joe Gibbs Racing teammates celebrate while having to wonder what could have been. They had finished 2015 on a sour note with Kenseth's two-race suspension and hadn't won in their previous 19 starts prior to Sunday.

"It's a character builder, that's for sure," Kenseth crew chief Jason Ratcliff said. "It will test your patience. ... The core group that's on the 20 team, most of them, if not all of them, have been in this sport for a long time. They understand.

"They thrive on how well we perform each week, not necessarily where we finish. But eventually, you know, that wears on you."

That should make this win for Kenseth among the most sweet.

"To have what happened to Matt at Daytona, to see the way he handled that, he and Jason, I think that says a lot about him because you could easily be upset about that," team owner Joe Gibbs said. "But Matt's had a great attitude through everything.

"I think he does appreciate good cars, having a great crew chief. ... For Matt to hang in there, he and Jason, the whole team, the 20 team, finally get a win, is just a huge deal."