SPARTA, Ky. — Matt Kenseth’s fuel-only pit stop gamble helped him beat Jimmie Johnson late and win Sunday’s rescheduled Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.
A race that was Johnson’s to lose ultimately became Kenseth’s Sprint Cup-leading fourth victory of the season after crew chief Jason Ratcliff passed on putting new tires on the No. 20 Toyota following the race’s ninth caution.
‘‘I thought he was slightly crazy when that happened,’’ said Kenseth, who widened his lead when the field went four-wide after the restart on Lap 246 and saw Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy spin from second place.
‘‘I didn’t think there was any way that we were going to hold on for that win. He made the right call at the right time and those guys got it done.’’
Kenseth led twice for 38 laps, including the final 23. Johnson, the five-time champion and current series points leader, was dominant, leading 182 laps before finishing ninth.
The restart bothered Johnson, who accused Kenseth of breaking the pace car speed. But he took solace in salvaging his 11th top-10 finish despite being sandwiched in the logjam that could have been worse.
‘‘We were kind of in an awkward situation in that restart there,’’ he said. ‘‘We were like three- and four-wide going in the corner, then something happened with the air and just kind of turned me around. Unfortunate, but at least we rallied back for a good finish.’’
Second was Jamie McMurray in a Chevy, followed by Clint Bowyer (Toyota), Joey Logano (Ford), and Kyle Busch (Toyota). Rain on Saturday forced NASCAR officials to postpone the race to a daytime start.
The event was red-flagged for 18 minutes after a seven-car wreck on Lap 49 involving defending champ Brad Keselowski.
Kurt Busch spun out Keselowski near Turn 1. Greg Biffle slammed into Keselowski, lifting his car off the asphalt and leaving both Fords mangled. Somehow, both returned to finish 33d and 34th respectively.
It was the biggest incident of 10 cautions for 42 laps, but things were clean after Johnson brought out the final yellow flag.
The checkered flag crowned Kentucky’s third different champion in as many events though Kenseth, like Johnson, was due for a breakthrough on the 1.5-mile oval. He finished seventh here last year and sixth in the 2011 inaugural race. However, victory didn’t seem likely for the 2003 Cup champion after qualifying 16th and running outside the top 20 in the first quarter of the event.
‘‘I thought our first run, we were all right, and I guess probably after the second run we were able to move forward pretty good,’’ Kenseth said.
From then on, he was a perennial top-five contender. Trouble was, he and other hopefuls seemed to need Johnson to suffer misfortune to have any shot of catching him.
Turns out, Kenseth needed to rely on the left-side tires Ratcliff ordered the previous stop. Taking fuel only the final time allowed him to gain the lead coming off pit road, and the rubber held up on the rough, bumpy track.
Ratcliff was shocked that more teams didn’t follow suit with that strategy.
‘‘I felt like more guys would make that call, and so I thought it was worth a shot to get out there,’’ the crew chief said. ‘‘When we rolled off pit road and saw what everybody did, I looked to the guy beside me and I’m like, ‘I can’t believe we are the only ones that did that.’ ’’
The decision led to a surprising late turn of events, and the tense finish in which McMurray and Bowyer took turns trying to chase down Kenseth provided a nice makeup after Saturday night’s washout.
In a season of struggles, McMurray was just happy with his first top-five.
‘‘Every week it’s been something,’’ he said, ‘‘so it’s nice to have some good luck.’’