Kenseth, Johnson aim to right Charlotte 'ship'
October 11, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Chase leaders have shot to fix recent struggles at Charlotte
CONCORD, N.C. -- Matt Kenseth does not believe in mulligans.
"I don't believe in ever wanting to give up points," the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup leader said. He'd have every reason to change his mind after the past two weeks, performances at Dover and Kansas that left something to be desired in the results column, but still allowed the Joe Gibbs Racing driver to maintain a slim advantage atop the standings.
Kenseth finished seventh two weekends ago at a Dover track where he's a two-time winner, and muscled an ill-handling race car to an 11th-place result last Sunday on a Kansas facility where he had won the previous two events. The winner of the first two playoff races, Kenseth still departed Kansas City with a three-point edge over Jimmie Johnson, his closest pursuer.
"There and Dover, we certainly wanted to do better than we did," Kenseth said. "But we did the best that we could, and that's over, so we just move on to the next one and do the best we can here at Charlotte."
Saturday night's event at Charlotte Motor Speedway ends the opening half of the 10-race Chase, and presents an opportunity for Kenseth to return to form given his success on 1.5-mile venues this year. Of his personal record seven race victories this season, four of them have come on intermediate tracks the same size as a Charlotte facility where he's won twice, most recently in 2011.
It all sets up a potential showdown with Johnson at a track where both drivers have weathered wild swings in fortune -- Kenseth's two wins at Charlotte spanned more than a decade, while Johnson has prevailed in just one of his last 15 after claiming five out of six races.
"We're still trying to find that magic where we can separate ourselves each time we come back, but I still feel like we’re in that top-three, top-five group," Johnson said. "As long as Matt isn’t winning, then a top-three or a top-five wouldn't be too bad this weekend."
Although the Chase has yet to distill itself down to a two-man duel -- third-place Kevin Harvick is 25 points behind after his win last Sunday, and the wildest of wild cards looms next week at Talladega -- Charlotte certainly offers the opportunity for the leaders to build some separation. Johnson's six career victories are a record here, and he won the Sprint All-Star Race at the same facility in May. Kenseth has been the driver to beat on 1.5-milers all season, despite his 15th-place result here in the spring.
"Sometimes you can't just look at numbers," Kenseth said at an event where he and watch company Citizen donated $25,000 to the University of Wisconsin Alzheimer's research facility in remembrance of the his mother Nicola, who died of the disease last year. "I think more times than not we’ve ran well here, we just don’t have the finishes. … I feel like our performance has been pretty good here. Especially the last two or three years, I think our performance has been really good here. We don’t always have the finishes."
That was certainly the case in May, where Kenseth led 112 laps before he and Johnson were both taken out of contention in the same crash with 65 to go. Johnson had a stranglehold on the place in the middle 2000s, before a resurfacing altered so many of the things -- the bumps in the old asphalt, the tire fall-off, even the line the No. 48 car took around the facility -- that helped feed his dominance, and brought the five-time champion back to the field.
"The overwhelming majority of it is the repave, I think," Johnson said, referring to the track's 2006 resurfacing. "…. The old surface, the bumps, how tough it was to get around this place just worked really, really well for me, and we were able to find a little advantage, especially on long runs. And now with the surface like it is, it's just far different."
That certainly would seem to level the scales between him and Kenseth, who has won every other race this season on a 1.5-mile track -- with victories at Las Vegas, spring Kansas, Kentucky and Chicagoland. After falling short in Kansas City last weekend, that pattern would seem to portend a favorable outcome Saturday night in Charlotte.
"Good. That’s good," Kenseth said with a smile. "I just hope it keeps working like that. I still can't believe the year that we’ve had. We're certainly still in a really good spot after four weeks. We want to win a championship and that's our goal, but I'll say it again -- no matter what happens at the end of the year, it's been an incredible year. I just hope we can keep it going. Obviously this is an important six weeks, and it would be nice to be able to finish it off, that’s for sure."