DOVER, Del. (AP) — Matt Kenseth had eluded the wreckage that turned Dover into a junkyard. He never felt he could escape the pressure that Kyle Larson put on him — the anointed future star racing door-to-door with the former champion.
“He was all over me,” Kenseth said. “I think if he would have snuck inside, it would have been over.”
Twenty-one years older that Larson, Kenseth used some of his veteran experience to find the high groove on the mile concrete track and surge to victory Sunday in the wreck-filled race at Dover International Speedway.
Kenseth snapped a 17-race winless streak skid with his 37th career victory — and denied Larson his first Sprint Cup victory.
Larson made Kenseth work for the victory that secured him a spot in the Chase.
But it was third-place finisher Chase Elliott that may have cost Larson as much as Kenseth’s late-race maneuvering. Elliott, the second-generation rookie who replaced Jeff Gordon in the No. 24, made an aggressive run and briefly passed Larson for second. Their brief battle took enough steam out of Larson’s push that Kenseth was able to create a needed gap and become the fourth Joe Gibbs Racing driver to win in 2016.
“I think the last 20 laps is about as good as anybody could drive a racecar,” Gibbs said.
Larson matched his career-best finish for owner Chip Ganassi. Elliott had the top finish of his first season at Hendrick Motorsports.
The Next Generation has to wait for the confetti shower in victory lane.
Larson refused to bump Kenseth out of his path over the final thrilling laps and wanted a clean pass in the No. 42 to earn the win.
“It doesn’t even seem right that he hasn’t won yet,” Kenseth said. “He’s got a bunch of victories in front of him, for sure. He’s a really, really clean, hard racer, and a fast learner.”
The 44-year-old Kenseth is older than the combined ages of Elliott, 20, and the 23-year-old Larson.
The 2003 Cup champion, Kenseth led the Daytona 500 headed into the final lap before JGR teammate Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag, setting the stage for an 0-for-11 start.
“That is probably the longest streak I can remember being on without having any real good finishes,” Kenseth said.
Kenseth, Larson and Elliott were among the survivors after Jimmie Johnson triggered a late-race crash that eliminated several contenders.
He started a pileup straight out of the Talladega Superspeedway highlight reel that knocked out a slew of drivers who raced up front all race and brought it to a halt with less than 50 laps left.
Johnson, a 10-time winner at Dover, failed to jump off the restart because of a faulty transmission in the No. 48. The six-time champion could not shift the Chevy into third gear and 18 cars — stacked and off at full speed — were collected in the melee.
He was leading in the outside lane as he closed in on the start-finish line. Martin Truex Jr. nailed the 48 from behind and Dover soon looked like the site of a gnarly demolition derby.
“In my career, I’ve never had a transmission do that to me,” Johnson said.
Truex, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kyle Busch were among the drivers that had their cars piled up on the concrete.
Truex led 47 laps and seemed poised to earn his first win of the season.
“I want to get out and punch somebody,” Truex said over the radio. “Seriously. Hard. Like, as hard as I can.”
Busch, the reigning series champion, knew there was nowhere for the 18 to go but into the pile.
“Wait for me, I’m coming,” he said.
Aric Almirola said he suffered a broken finger in the wreck.
The race was stopped for 11 minutes, 22 seconds — and quickly had another caution shortly after it resumed. Carl Edwards suffered a brutal blow when the No. 19 slammed nose first into an inside wall protected by SAFER barriers. Larson made contact with Edwards and shot the JGR driver into the wall.
That left Kenseth, Larson and Elliott, who deftly avoided the Johnson-led accident, in a three-car battle down the stretch.
Kasey Kahne was fourth and Kurt Busch fifth. The race ended with only 14 drivers on the lead lap.
Here other things of note from Sunday’s race:
STEWART SMOKED: Tony Stewart’s run was felled late in the race by a broken track bar that punctured the oil tank in the No. 14.
Stewart finished 34th and is mired in 37th in the point standings. He needs a win and to finish inside the top 30 to make the Chase in his final season.
“We had been fighting, the car was acting weird for the last 80 to 100 laps,” he said. “I’m sure it was already starting to break and it finally just broke the rest of the way.”
Stewart said before the race he really liked the car he unloaded at Dover that was later wrecked during practice on Friday.
His last Cup victory came June 2, 2013 at Dover and his winless streak has reached 81 races.
“This place is junk,” Stewart said. “Maybe it’s just the fact I suck here. I really suck bad here.”
TRUEX’S TUMBLE: Truex, one of four drivers who raced for the championship in the 2015 season finale, appeared to have the car to beat at the site of his career Cup win. He even survived a minor scare when the Toyota wiggled over spilled grease on the concrete and he deftly kept the 78 off the wall.
It’s the second straight week Truex had a dominant run end in disaster; he had led 172 of the first 211 laps at Kansas before a loose wheel thwarted his run. He couldn’t avoid Dover’s version of the big one off the restart and fell from contender to ninth.
“I wanted to be fourth on that restart, but I didn’t want to be fourth that bad,” he said. “I should have been third so maybe I should have not let (Edwards) beat us off pit road. I don’t know how you can see those things coming. All in all good day, just bad finish.”
WHAT’S NEXT: It’s time for All-Star weekend. Hamlin won the non-points showcase event last year in Concord, North Carolina.