Busch, Kenseth propel organization to new Chase heights
It certainly seems that way -- same Wisconsin accent, same wonderfully dry sense of humor, same allegiance to the Green Bay Packers football team. But something has clearly changed, given that a driver who always lurked in the shadows and stole a win here or there is now dominating races and recording victories in bunches.
That much was clearly evident Saturday night at Chicagoland Speedway, when the driver from just up the road in Cambridge, Wis., led 89 laps to claim the opener in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, and set a new personal record with his sixth victory of the season in the process.
"It's been a record season for me. I'm obviously the same guy, the same driver," Kenseth said early Sunday morning, after a long event that totaled more than six hours in rain delays. "It's obviously about Joe Gibbs Racing, the guys working there, (crew chief) Jason (Ratcliff) and the group and everything."
It's clearly been a mutually beneficial relationship. The 41-year-old Kenseth has thrived in JGR cars, showing the kind of ruthless efficiency that's more often associated with five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson. And JGR has thrived with 2003 champion Kenseth under its roof, becoming an organization that feasts on intermediate tracks like Chicagoland, and now boasts a pair of potent championship threats in Kenseth and Kyle Busch.
That was all on display Sunday in Joliet, as the Chase opener boiled down to a duel between two JGR drivers who finished 1-2 in the race and now occupy those same positions in the standings. That's no small feat for an organization that's all too often stumbled early in the playoff, falling victim to mechanical breakdowns or other problems that have taken them out of the running in the initial stages of a 10-race stretch where any miscue is magnified.
Not so at Chicagoland, where Kenseth earned the organization's sixth victory this year on a mile-and-a-half track. JGR's Denny Hamlin may be playing out the string in a lost season defined by a back injury that knocked him out for most of five races, but his teammates have the organization off to an uncharacteristically strong Chase start as they pursue JGR's first Sprint Cup title since Tony Stewart's last one there in 2005.
"I think we got great news. We won the race tonight," Gibbs said. "We were one and two there. The reality is, tomorrow morning it starts all over again. We're going to be worried. We got nine races. You see those competitors out there. You could see … it could have been almost the top six, seven, eight could have been up there, got out front, it would have been a different story. I think this is going to be very, very competitive. But … getting off to a good start, we've struggled some doing that. I thought it was a good feeling tonight to get off to a good start with both of our cars there. … That's a big deal for us. It's a good start. But the reality is tomorrow morning, it's nine more to go."
Next week brings the flat mile layout in New Hampshire, where Hamlin has won twice and may prove a valuable asset to his teammates in championship contention. Next comes the concrete mile in Dover, where Johnson is king. But after that are back-to-back 1.5-milers in Kansas and Charlotte, with intermediates in Texas and Homestead looming further down the line. "We're excited about that," Ratcliff admitted.
Sunday in Joliet offered a snapshot of what's possible. Although Busch didn't get his second career tripleheader sweep, and was left still seeking his first victory in a Chase event since 2005, in the bigger picture the significance of a 1-2 Gibbs finish in the opening playoff race was evident.
"I think having the 18 and the 20 (cars) running up front like that shows that we're capable of doing that," he said. "Matt, I tell you, Matt is really, really good at mile‑and‑a‑half racing. He is fast. He's won a lot of them this year. I typically in the past haven't been great at it, but certainly this year have been better at it. It's a testament to us all learning, sharing information, getting better. I think Denny had a good run tonight going, too. It's a process. Our program seems to be working well with these mile‑and‑a‑half tracks, but also Kenseth has won on a short track as well with Bristol. (There's) optimism in the final 10, which half of them are mile‑and‑a‑halfs."
Dave Rogers, Busch's crew chief, said Sunday's result sent a message -- not necessarily to the competition, but to the employees who work at JGR headquarters in Huntersville, N.C.
"I think it's the first race of the Chase, but it certainly sends a message to everyone back at the shop that their race teams are ready to race," Rogers said. "… To come here and represent them with a 1-2 finish, we'll go back to the shop and rib each other. My buddy (No. 18 team mechanic) Jeff Chandler will probably tell me the 20 car is the house car. Hopefully next weekend we can remind him the 18 car is the house car. But we'll have a lot of fun with it. That's a great way to start the Chase."
Particularly since the last two winners of the opening race at Chicagoland -- Stewart and Brad Keselowski -- have gone on to win the championship. Nine races remain and anything certainly can happen, but for Joe Gibbs Racing one long day-into-night on the fringe of the Windy City may have represented a step forward in more ways than one.
"It's certainly a great feeling," Rogers said. "But what we told ourselves going into the Chase is to level out the roller coaster. This is the most humbling sport in the world, so we don't want to get too excited and think we have this thing won by any stretch of the imagination. We want to stay humble and keep digging and keep performing. But certainly the 1-2 finish is a great way to start the Chase."