LONG POND – Matt Kenseth was NASCAR’s biggest winner in 2013, a dominant run that thrust him into contention for his second championship.
He came up just short. Seven wins, no title. Small consolation.
Kenseth’s first year with Joe Gibbs Racing was a smashing success except for winning a championship to bookend with the one he has from 2003. Kenseth found the hard way that wins are nice, but winning it all matters more.
Headed into Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway, Kenseth is atop the points standings but the only driver in the top nine without at least one checkered flag.
NASCAR revamped the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format this year to add great significance to winning a race in the first 26 before the cutoff. Kenseth would be a lock for the field with a victory. Without one, Kenseth might have to hope he keeps his points lead: The regular-season leader earns a spot even with a winless season.
Kenseth has won 13 races the last three years and it seems inevitable he’ll find his way in Victory Lane soon enough. He has never won at Pocono, but has two career wins at next week’s track (Michigan) and he’s won three times at Bristol (Aug. 23). He’d surrender the lead for taking the No. 20 Toyota for a spin in Victory Lane soon.
“You’d rather have a win at this time of year than be the points leader,” he said. “It’s definitely different. We knew it was a radical change, but you’re sitting here because you’re the points leader but you open up the paper and they don’t have you in the top-10. It’s a little bit confusing at times. So yeah, hopefully we can get a win.”
Kenseth joins the rest of the field in trying to race his way past Jimmie Johnson. The six-time champion is coming off back-to-back victories in the Coca-Cola 600 and at Dover International Speedway and will try to win three straight for the first time since 2007.
Steady as always, Kenseth has been in the hunt for several wins. He just can’t find that one edge that will get him one. He has five top-five finishes and 10 top-10s in 13 races for a 9.2 average finish. He’s finished third in each of the last two races.
“People always ask about changing your strategies or trying harder or doing this or doing that, but if it was that easy, you’d win every week,” he said “I’ve never not wanted to win. If there was a way to force wins, I’d force it every week.”
With half the season left before the Chase field is set, Kenseth isn’t worried too much about his winless season. Former champion Tony Stewart also is winless. So are Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman, on the outside of the Chase and in a lot worse shape.
“I think there has been a touch of bad luck and then we just haven’t put together full races,” Kahne said. “We’ve had great practices over the last month, maybe a little more than that. We’ve been really good in practice; great at times during the race, but we haven’t put together the full race.”
Kenseth isn’t quite sure why the No. 20 has yet to come close to matching last season’s success.
“If we knew exactly that, it would be a lot easier to fix,” he said. “There’s been times you get pretty good car balance, but you haven’t had the speed. You always try to look over everything and look over how you get your vehicles setup better, how you can get your aero setup better, how you can get your engines better.”