- Associated Press - Sunday, October 16, 2011

CONCORD, N.C. — Matt Kenseth won his only Cup title in 2003 and NASCAR immediately changed the championship rules.

He always resisted the urge to take it personally despite the overwhelming evidence that his methodical but nondescript season forced NASCAR to pump some life into the system by creating the current Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

Now, eight years later, he’s finally back in the title hunt.

Kenseth won Saturday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, passing Kyle Busch on a restart with 25 laps remaining, to grab his first victory of this Chase.

It moved him two spots in the standings to third, and he’s only seven points behind leader Carl Edwards at the halfway point of the Chase.

“It doesn’t really matter to me that much what everybody thinks,” Kenseth said. “We’re in it or out of it or whatever. What’s important to me is trying to win races and trying to be competitive and go do the best job we can do every week.

“If somebody wants to say I’m boring or whatever — I was hired to try to go win races and try to run good and that’s what I try to do every week.”

But the path to the championship may have become just a little clearer Saturday night.

Five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson was in a hard accident that sent him spiraling in the standings.

He was running seventh with 17 laps remaining when contact with Ryan Newman sent him headfirst into the wall. The hit was so hard, his back tires briefly lifted off the track.

He finished 34th and dropped to eighth in the standings.

“That one stung for sure. Pretty big impact,” Johnson said.

Johnson, winner of last week’s race at Kansas, had started the race ranked third in points and only four points behind Edwards. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week, and had dismissed the idea of falling prey to the so-called cover jinx.

After notching his lowest Chase-race finish since he was 38th at Texas in 2009, he may now be wondering if the curse is credible.

“This is not going to help us win a sixth championship,” he admitted.

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