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Kenseth takes victory at an unusually calm night at Bristol

BRISTOL, Tenn. – It was such a curious night, even Dale Earnhardt Jr. conceded. &uot;Everyone must have been on their best behavior,&uot; Earnhardt was saying after making a remarkable rally to finish third in the Sharpie 500, behind one-two Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch.

&uot;I was really surprised,&uot; Dale Jarrett echoed. &uot;People raced pretty clean&uot;.

Once again Jeff Gordon displayed some un-Gordon antics, this time aggravating Scott Riggs.

But generally the NASCAR gang seemed rather content simply to get through the evening at this huge 160,000-seat, adrenaline-filled stadium without raising any major ruckus.

Even Kasey Kahne, who is fighting to break back into the top-10 and make the championship playoff cut, didn’t seem to be playing with much spunk, at least not for Bristol.

Of course largely that may all be Jeff Burton’s fault. He dominated the race until fading late, and no one could touch him.

However, the last round of pit stops may have doomed Burton, who left Bristol Motor Speedway questioning just what went wrong. Like at Indianapolis, where he dominated the Brickyard 400, the sport’s second-biggest event, only to fade down the stretch, Burton was left scratching his head Saturday night.

&uot;We will keep digging, keep trying to improve,&uot; Burton said dejectedly. &uot;I feel good about our team, and I just think we have to be better in some areas … and when I say we, I am including myself&uot;.

Tony Stewart, the defending tour champion, was also left scratching his head after one of his worst performances of the season. Stewart started fifth but faded quickly and wound up a dismal 22nd, falling three spots in the standings to eighth, just behind Burton heading this week to California Speedway in Los Angeles. He split from the track without comment.

But Kenseth and crew chief Robbie Reiser are downright ecstatic over their current run of luck – victory Saturday, victory in Friday’s Busch race, and victory a week ago at Michigan. That’s four Cup tour wins in the year’s first 24 races, including Dover and California.

If NASCAR were using its past

championship system, this year’s title race would already be down to a two-man battle between tour leader Jimmie Johnson and Kenseth, just seven points behind. Kevin Harvick, the closest challenger, is 321 points behind Johnson.

Despite the great runs Johnson and Kenseth have put on through the first 24 races of the 36-race season, when the playoffs start Sept. 17, the top 10 drivers will essentially have their points all rolled back to zero.

&uot;I would love to be leading the points going in,&uot; Kenseth says of the playoffs. &uot;Of course it’s only five points (to start the chase), but it’s still five points.&uot;

If Harvick hangs on to third, when the chase starts he’ll be just 10 points behind the leader.

Johnson and Kenseth clinched playoffs spots Saturday night, and any driver leading the 11th-place driver by 191 points leaving California Speedway next Sunday night is guaranteed a spot in the chase. Kahne, 11th, trails 10th place Mark Martin by 90 points. And fourth to 10th in the standings are separated by 48 points. Seven of the top-10 drivers changed positions in the standings here.

For Kenseth, the season has been a mirror of 2003: &uot;It feels like ’03 in that we’re not making mistakes, and they’re really good on pit road, and our cars have been prepared well at the shop, and we haven’t had stuff break.

&uot;This season – man – there was a two or three-week slump Poconos (June-July) and the first Loudon where we didn’t perform good enough to run top-10. But basically every week we’ve been a contender. And that says a lot for Robbie.

&uot;But you definitely have to enjoy it; that’s one thing I’ve learned in this business…. because things can turn on you in a big hurry. You can be on top of the world today, and tomorrow battling your guts out for 25th.

Kenseth didn’t back into the win, but Burton did all but give it away. &uot;We could comfortably run top-five, but Jeff Burton had us most of the night,&uot; Kenseth said.

Burton led more than half of the 500 laps. But his last pit stop was slow, and he was back in 12th for the final restart with 45 laps to go. He managed to get back to ninth.

So the men chasing Kenseth down the stretch were Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch.

&uot;Getting out of the pits ahead of Kyle was key,&uot; Kenseth said.

The final 55 laps went green, which Kenseth played to his hand. &uot;If I were in front of Jeff Gordon or Dale Jr., I felt OK. They were quicker in a short run, but in a long run we had a pretty good car.&uot;