DARLINGTON, S.C. – Matt Kenseth hopes to get his season going and lock up a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup at Darlington Raceway.
Kenseth came to the Southern 500 last May one of Sprint Cup’s hottest drivers, winning twice in his first season driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. This time, Kenseth comes in winless through seven races under the new NASCAR format where a victory pretty much ensures a driver a spot in the 16-team playoffs.
“I’ve never been at a race I didn’t want to win,” Kenseth said. “We show up every week with our best stuff trying to figure out how to sit on the pole and win the race. That’s never really changed since I started racing.”
Kenseth and his JGR team got it done a season ago, taking the Southern 500 and enhancing the driver’s fast start with his new program. Kenseth hopes that past success gives him a leg up for Saturday night’s race – and gets him locked into the playoffs.
Kenseth’s not the only regular winner without a trip to Victory Lane this year. Six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson hasn’t won. Neither has current points leader Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle or Tony Stewart with 19 races remaining before the playoffs begin.
Kenseth said he and his team aren’t panicking with plenty of time remaining to claim a victory or get in on points – still a possibility in Kenseth’s mind despite no multiple winners so far this season.
But Kenseth doesn’t spend any more or less time considering his placing after each race. That might change, he says, if he gets to late summer without a victory and trying to qualify for the playoffs on points.
“History suggests that there are going to be a few guys added by points who didn’t win,” he said. “Certainly, if that’s the case, the point standings are very important.”
Kenseth has long handled the vagaries of NASCAR’s old point systems that sometimes put more importance on consistency than victories. In 2002, Kenseth won five races but was well behind series champion Stewart in the final standings. The next season, Kenseth took a steadier approach, built a large points lead by the summer and held on for his NASCAR championship.
But Kenseth’s not sure how all this will shake out the next five months.
“Are we going to have 10 winners? Are we going to have 20 winners?” he said. “There’s no telling how important points are going to be.”
Kenseth overtook the dominant car of Gibbs’ teammate, Kyle Busch, when Busch’s tire had a slow leak and he dropped out of the lead with 13 laps to go. Busch had led 265 laps, but settled for sixth – his fifth top-10 finish in nine career starts at Darlington.
Busch earned his playoff spot with a win last month in the Auto Club 400 at Fontana, Calif. He’s not sure how important it was to win so early, only that it gave his team some relief about where they’ll be come September.
“It certainly takes a load off your shoulders and just kind of relieves a little bit, puts another breath in your sails,” Busch said. “There are going to be guys who get in, I believe without wins. It sort of guarantees your spot, so now it gives you more opportunity to experiment.”
Penske racer Joey Logano won that right with victory at Texas Motor Speedway earlier this week as the series heads into Darlington.
Busch expects another strong outing from he and his teammates Kenseth and Denny Hamlin this week.
“I feel like all the JGR drivers obviously are really, really good,” Busch said. “Of course our equipment is good, too, and we can run fast there, run well there, and if you can keep air in the tires, you might win.”
And maybe earn a playoff spot at the “Lady in Black.”