USA TODAY US Edition
KENSETH MAY SNEAK UP ON RIVALS
Fourth win of ’15 gives ’03 champion Chase momentum
There will be a lot of talk about championship contenders in the coming days before NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup begins, and names such as defending champion Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and sixtime titlist Jimmie Johnson probably will get the most mentions.
What about Matt Kenseth? Oh, yeah, him, too.
That’s a typical reaction when discussing Kenseth, NASCAR’s silent assassin. By the time you know he’s there, it’s too late.
Kenseth’s win Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway was his fourth of the season — tying him for the series lead heading into the 10-week Chase playoff — and third in the last six races. If Kenseth gets overlooked when listing title favorites, that would be a mistake.
After all, he has made a career out of being consistent — which always has been a benefit when it comes to the Chase. But this year, he’s throwing it back to 2013, the year he won seven races and battled Johnson for the title.
And with Joe Gibbs Racing flying high as an organization, Kenseth might be more dangerous than ever.
“I feel like, as a company right now, we’re stronger than we were in ’13,” he said.
Kenseth’s season, just like JGR’s, has been somewhat of a surprise after he went from those seven victories two years ago to zero in 2014. The organization has 11 wins and eight of the last 11 after winning twice last year.
In the offseason, as JGR expanded to four teams to accommodate Carl Edwards’ arrival, personnel were swapped. Denny Hamlin and Busch got new crew chiefs, and Edwards got former Hamlin crew chief Darian Grubb.
But the No. 20 stuck together, and the results have paid off.
“I was probably as proud or prouder of everybody in the shop, including my team, last year than I was in ’13 or this year, really,” Kenseth said. “Just the way they handled themselves, kept an even keel, kept working on it. Nobody got any bad attitudes or panicked or anything. Just kept working on it.”
That approach closely matches Kenseth’s personality. A 16-year Cup veteran, he knows all about the highs and lows that come with racing.
“A lot of the stuff is cyclical,” said Kenseth, who won the Cup title in 2003, the year before the Chase format debuted.
But it sure is going well now — not that he’s going to start declaring himself the favorite.
“I will say it feels really good,” he said. “It’s good for all of our confidence, probably especially mine.”
Said team owner Joe Gibbs, “You know that all those other teams out there, they’re coming. The hardest thing in pro sports is staying up there. So that will be our challenge now.”