Kenseth aims for Chase-opening record third win
September 27, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
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DOVER, Del. -- Sure, Matt Kenseth is batting a thousand in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. He’s 2-0 in the opening 10-race run to crown the sport’s champion, leading a combined 195 laps en route to the wins and has another victory and two top-six finishes in the three races leading into the Chase.
A seven-race winner this season, Kenseth has confidence, momentum, and even extra motivation proving himself a top-shelf addition in his first year driving for Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota.
If the pundits want to put a target on his back and his 14-point lead over JGR teammate Kyle Busch, that’s fine with him. If people already want to declare it a two or three-man race only two weeks into the postseason, that works too -- even though Kenseth is the first to caution it’s still early.
Earning the role of championship favorite sure beats the alternative. Kenseth knows that first-hand.
“As I’ve watched the Chase through all these years, there’s always guys that get far enough behind where they’re basically eliminated (at this point] and I was one of those guys last year,’’ Kenseth said Friday before qualifying for Sunday’s AAA 400 (coverage begins at 1 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Dover International Speedway.
“After we got out of Dover, I knew it would take a small miracle to get back in. If you asked me where I’d like to be, I’d like to be out front. I’d like to be out front as far as you could possibly get out there. I think that’s the best place to be.’’
Clearly Kenseth and his team have bought into the mindset. Complacency doesn’t appear to be an option judging on the performance of Kenseth’s No. 20 Home Depot Husky Toyota right off the track at Dover, where he was the track-record fastest in practice. He later backed up his speed by qualifying second for Sunday's race.
“Ready to get started with our day and get back to work,’’ Kenseth said before practice.
And while Kenseth has twice previously won two-in-a-row competing in the Cup Series (2006 and 2009) he has never won three consecutive races -- not in Sprint Cup or in a successful Nationwide tenure either.
He has two victories at Dover’s notoriously tough Monster Mile, but finished 40th here in the spring because of a blown motor -- his worst finish of the year. And further reminder that you can never be too far ahead in the championship.
“Like any other track, you try to do the best job you can of doing a good job at the things that we can control and not worry about the things we can’t control,’’ Kenseth said.
“The only magic formula to the Chase or any championship is to have more points than the people you’re racing against and it depends where they all finish and how many points they have for what it takes to beat them.
“Every year is a little different. … Tony (Stewart) won a championship in the Chase by not winning any races or the final 10 and then he won [a second] championship in the Chase by winning half of them.’’
What’s unique to Kenseth’s early run is that his primary competition is coming from his teammate Busch, who has finished second to Kenseth the past two weeks. It says a lot about the Joe Gibbs Racing organization. But it also lends credence to a championship push by two of the winningest drivers over the course of the season.
“They have always had good equipment and fast cars; I really feel like Matt and the relationship that he and his crew chief (Jason Ratcliff) have and what they have ben able to bring to the table has helped elevate them and Joe Gibbs to the next level,’’ said five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who is third in points, 18 behind Kenseth.
“The experience that Matt bring in, the smarts, the knowledge, the consistent driving that is a nice kind of rock within the organization, that, without a doubt, has helped them.’’
And until someone else changes the game, Kenseth couldn’t be more willing to lead the way.