Kenseth elected to stay on the track when most of the field pitted after a caution flag with 67 laps to go, picking track position and fresh air over new tires. It seemed like a strategy that could work, especially if he could stay in the high racing groove that gave drivers decidedly more speed off the corners.
But the Penske Racing teammates quickly proved it faulty.
"I just knew that clean air was going to be worth more than new tires," Kenseth said of his decision after finishing third. He said he also felt his car wasn't as strong as he liked on fresh tires. "They cleared everybody way too fast."
He still remains in great position to make the playoffs, standing fifth in the points race and first among non-winners.
Jimmie Johnson, slowed early by two pit road speeding penalties, rallied to finish fourth, his best result since mid-June at Michigan, and Kurt Busch was fifth.
Gordon remained the points leader despite a 16th-place run. He's 27 clear of Earnhardt and 69 ahead of Keselowski.
With 100 to go, it looked possible the series might get a 13th winner of the year.
Jamie McMurray, who led a race-best 148 laps, was leading, followed by Kenseth, and Ryan Newman was ninth. As the final laps clicked off, though, McMurray faded to eighth and Newman, once as high as seventh, dropped to 13th.
Kasey Kahne, another driver desperate for a victory or a surge in the point standings, led the race for 40 laps, almost to the halfway point. He then pitted under green with a loose wheel and went two laps down. He wound up 35th.
It was another rough night for Aric Almirola, who has had six of those in a row since his first career victory at Daytona made him one of the unlikeliest drivers to secure a spot in the upcoming Chase.
Almirola, who started 42nd after crashing in qualifying, completed just 37 laps before crashing.
"What an amazing race car these guys brought me two of them and to go out like that is certainly disappointing. But that's racing at Bristol," he said. "You get caught up in other people's wrecks."
2. Earnhardt Jr. -27
3. B. Keselowski -69
4. Joey Logano -84
5. Matt Kenseth -94
6. Jimmie Johnson -119
7. Kevin Harvick -124
8. Carl Edwards -129
8. Ryan Newman -135
10. Clint Bowyer -146
11. Greg Biffle -146
12. Kyle Larson -177
Wins • Earnhardt Jr., 3; Gordon, 3; Johnson, 3; Keselowski, 3; Logano, 3; Edwards, 2; Harvick, 2; Allmendinger, 1; Almirola, 1; Ku.Busch, 1; Ky.Busch, 1; Hamlin, 1.