Kenseth still strong, but still searching
May 27, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
RELATED: Full race results | Series standings
CONCORD, N.C. -- One unexpected winless streak ended Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600, while another continued. And both involved the drivers who battled down to the final race for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title one season ago.
Jimmie Johnson broke through for a record seventh career victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and a first this season for the defending and six-time champion of the sport's top circuit. Left still waiting to make an initial trip to Victory Lane in 2014 was Matt Kenseth, who led the series with seven wins last season and led with fewer than 20 laps remaining Sunday night, but ultimately settled for third.
With Johnson at last notching a mark in the victory column, it's Kenseth -- who sits second in the standings, and whose nine top-10 finishes in 12 races are tied for the series lead -- who becomes the most notable championship contender without a win this season. Kenseth's most recent victory was at New Hampshire in the second race of last year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, and the skid since now stands at 20 starts heading to Dover International Speedway next week.
At Charlotte, he certainly was in the mix -- Kenseth passed Jeff Gordon for the lead with 16 laps remaining, but Johnson muscled past the No. 20 car on the low side with nine circuits to go, and then Kevin Harvick got by to take second. The third-place result was Kenseth's best of the season, but also another close call for a driver who is in contention on almost a weekly basis but still without a victory to show for it.
"Me personally, whenever your team does everything, everything falls the right way, they put you out in the front at the end of the race, you don't win the race, you're always frustrated and disappointed," Kenseth said. "You don't get a lot of those opportunities. Although I felt like I did everything I could possibly do, we just weren't quick enough to hold them off. So, yeah, a little frustrated we didn't get the win."
The speed -- or relative lack thereof -- in his car seemed a concern for Kenseth in the immediate aftermath of the 600, particularly in light of how Johnson was able to pass him in the end. "Honestly thought we were going to be in pretty good shape," Kenseth said of his position as the finish loomed. But then his car tightened up, and suddenly Johnson was past him.
"Man, he was just mowing me down," Kenseth said. "He could do that pretty much anytime he wanted to tonight. Every time I raced by him, when he wanted, he had at least two tenths (of a second) in the back, or three. I had clean air, everything lined up, had the lead, I just couldn't go fast enough to hold them off. That's a little bit disappointing. I feel like we're gaining on it. Certainly we're not where we were at this time last year, all of us there leading a bunch of laps and being in contention to win. I feel like we had a top‑five car tonight, and finished third with it."
By this point last season, Kenseth had three race victories in the bag and was leading double- and triple-digit laps on almost a routine basis. He led 42 circuits Sunday night, bringing his season total to 304 -- an amount he had easily surpassed by the sixth race of the 2013 campaign. NASCAR made a few aerodynamic tweaks to the Sprint Cup car prior to this season, which has made the vehicle more of a challenge for some teams compared to a year ago.
"We're working on it," Kenseth said. "Whether you're the fastest car in the garage or the slowest in the garage, you're always trying to work on it to get better. Panicking has never helped anything. Like I said, I feel like we're gaining on it. We've just been off a little bit all year. Honestly I thought we ended (last) year really strong. … We haven't been like that all season. I don't know if it's the aero, rules changes. We just have been off a couple tenths at all these tracks. We're digging hard trying to figure it out. We're just not quite there yet."
In fairness, it's hardly like the No. 20 team has fallen off the map -- Kenseth has recorded top-10s in seven of his last eight starts, and now trails the leader Gordon by 11 points in the standings. But race victories are at more of a premium now with wins being the primary criteria for inclusion in the revamped 16-person Chase, and Sunday night Johnson became the 10th driver to bask in confetti and champagne this season.
"I think you've just got to keep working on it the same, as hard as you can each and every week. It's not like you can try harder and work harder and make it happen," Kenseth said. "You've just got to keep digging at it, keep trying to get better. It's not like we're way off. It's not like we're terrible. All mile‑and‑a‑halfs except for Kansas, we've been running top five or six. We're getting better. We're not way, way off. We just need a little bit extra to run with those guys."
Sunday night seemed to back that up -- the No. 20 team overcame a baseball-sized hole punched in the nose of the car, caused by some unseen piece of debris, and patched with a combination of aluminum and tape. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff placed the onus for the third-place finish on himself, saying his adjustments toward the end of the race weren't as effective as he hoped they'd be.
"I just made the wrong adjustments there at the end. A couple of runs prior to that, we were able to run in front of Jimmie there for a number of laps, and be OK. Then we went too loose. We felt, hey if we can fix that, maybe if we get in that same situation again, we'll have a shot at it. But I just overdid it," Ratcliff said. "I think the car has speed, it's just got to be -- I don't want to use the word perfect, but the window of opportunity is a little bit smaller than you like to see. I felt like our cars last year, we never wanted to miss it, but if we did on one side or the other, the car still had speed in it. Whereas right now, we're just not there."
The progress is gradual. "It's taking more time than we had hoped," Ratcliff said. His message to Kenseth over the radio immediately after the race was in a similar vein. "Getting closer," the crew chief told his driver. They're doing it one top-10 finish at a time, as Kenseth works to end his skid and become the next driver to break through the gate to Victory Lane.