Kenseth would rather have win than points lead
June 06, 2014, Pat DeCola, NASCAR.com
LONG POND, Pa. -- It's easy to see why Matt Kenseth might be frustrated.
The points leader at the halfway mark of the Sprint Cup Series regular season, Kenseth was pelted with questions asking why he hadn't won yet during his media availability on Friday.
Those were questions recently asked of six-time champion and defending Pocono race-winner Jimmie Johnson, fresh off a pair of statement victories in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and last week's win at Dover. As Johnson left the media center and Kenseth made his way in, the line of questioning quickly shifted from "How confident are you that you can run away with this, Mr. Johnson?" to "How are you going to fix this, Matt?"
In reality, not much separates the two former champions.
Just three weeks ago, it was Johnson fielding the "Why haven't you won yet?" interrogations, despite five finishes in the top 6 before the series even hit Richmond (a total of eight races). Now that Johnson has quieted any doubters, the heat is supposedly on Kenseth, even though the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has led laps in all but three races this season. The No. 20 team is consistently in position to win -- even as it continues to fine tune setups and adjusts to the new rules package.
Did anybody ever seriously think Johnson wouldn't break through for a win before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup started?
"Some of the stuff about Jimmie finally winning; what was it, 10 races?" said Kenseth, whose 463 points lead the field. "He just got off a championship and he went 10 races without a win. I don't think he was worried about his job yet."
Yet even so, those questions have been projected on to Kenseth, last year's runner-up and winner of a series-high seven races in 2013.
Looking at the standings, it begs the question of which position a driver would rather be in at this point -- winless and in the points lead as Kenseth is, or 27th in points but with the security blanket of a win at Martinsville, as Kurt Busch has done.
"We'd rather have the win," Kenseth said. "Being in the top 30 in points really shouldn't be a problem, so of course you'd rather have a win than being the points leader. So yeah, it's definitely different. We knew (the new Chase system) was a radical change from what we had. You're sitting here (in the media center) because you're the points leader, but you open up the paper and they don't have you in the top 10. So it's a little bit confusing at times. Hopefully, we can get a win."
While his spotty history at the 2.5-mile Tricky Triangle suggests that the win may not come this weekend in Sunday's Pocono 400 (1 p.m. ET, TNT), Kenseth has a good chance to visit Victory Lane in the 12 races that follow. Especially if he and crew chief Jason Ratcliff can get things straightened out under the hood.
"There's been times we've had pretty good car balance but haven't quite had the speed," Kenseth said. "You always try to look over everything. You always try to look over how you can get your mechanical setup better or your aero setup better or your engines better. You just keep trying to work on everything as hard as you can and just trying to improve.
"There's really nothing you do different. I feel like my team has been doing an unbelievable job this year with adjustments, race strategy, pit stops and all the race day stuff that I think is a lot better than last year. They put me in position to win a few times, we just haven't had the speed to hang on and get one yet. I feel like we're making improvements and we'll keep getting the cars a little bit better and hopefully we'll keep operating like that and be able to get a couple wins."
One thing that Kenseth and other winless drivers such as Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart actually do need to worry about, however, is Johnson's 48 maintaining its hot streak, picking off race wins and limiting their opportunities.
Considering Johnson won from the pole after leading 128 of 160 laps in last year's edition of this race, the chances of "Six-Time" becoming the first driver to win three races in a row since he won four straight in 2007 are looking pretty good.
"The thing that brings a lot of optimism to our team is this is Chad's favorite race track," Johnson said of crew chief Chad Knaus. "He loves the challenge here of trying to figure out how to get the car to go down those long straightaways and in through three much stricter corners.
"I know that we've had some great runs and usually when we're hot it carries from track to track. I certainly hope we can keep it rolling. This is a great place for us."
Conversely, it isn't a great place for Kenseth.
In 28 career starts in Long Pond, the 2003 Cup champion has just three top-five finishes, none of which were wins and the last of which was in 2006. That said, 26 of those starts came driving for Roush Fenway Racing and as Kenseth's seven 2013 wins suggest, he found success in his new JGR Toyota at tracks that he previously counted as having no shot at, making a win this weekend not entirely out of the question.
"Pocono is a really different track," Kenseth said. "We did win at some tracks last year that we'd never won at (New Hampshire, Darlington). Certainly there are some tracks that I've felt like were my weakest in the past that were some of our strongest last year. I think just with the organization switch it's just being stronger at certain tracks. Martinsville, New Hampshire, a couple of those tracks. I never thought I'd ever win a race at Loudon, so who knows."