BRISTOL, Tenn. – It’s the kind of jumble that can make even the most seasoned driver nervous.
Matt Kenseth stands fifth in the points standings and seems a lock to make in into NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup championship when the 10-race playoffs begin in three weeks at Chicagoland Speedway.
But the 2003 series champion is still winless this season. With three races remaining in the regular-season, including two on unpredictable short tracks, he’s not banking on anything just yet.
“I never feel like you’re a lock for anything until you’re really a lock for something,” Kenseth said Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway, the first of those short tracks to be navigated in the next three races. “Until it’s mathematically impossible to be out, I never feel like you’re in. We want to win.”
He’s still in a lot less precarious position than, say, Greg Biffle.
Twelve drivers are already locked into the playoffs as race winners. Kenseth’s 709 points put him 13th in the Chase standings, 49 points ahead of Biffle, who is in the final qualifying spot.
Three drivers – Kasey Kahne, Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson – are within 24 points of Biffle, and the list of nonwinners also includes very capable drivers like Kahne, Paul Menard and Jamie McMurray.
In NASCAR’s new format, a win by any of them, or by one of several other drivers, would allow the race-winner to jump into the championship field.
“You’ve got to really be on offense and defense” at Bristol, Biffle said. “You come in here and run as hard as you can. We’re here to win and we feel like we run in the top 10 about every time we’re at Bristol, and that’s the position you need to be in in order to put yourself in a position to win.”
Carl Edwards won that way at Bristol back in the spring, Biffle noted, by being in the right position when it mattered most. His victory was cemented by an inadvertent caution to end a rain-soaked race.
“I feel it’s going to take a win still to get in this thing,” Biffle said.
The dicey nature of the jumble gets all the more intriguing with rookies Dillon and Larson among those hot on Biffle’s heals. Dillon trails by 22 points for 16th place, Larson is 24 back.
“Being a rookie, I don’t have much to lose,” Dillon said. “There has never been a rookie make the Chase. This would be a great opportunity to do that. … I don’t feel a huge sense of urgency.”
Plenty of others do, though, or at least a sense of uncertainty. Two-time race winner Joey Logano is delighted to be out of jeopardy and firmly locked into the playoffs.
“There are guys out there with a lot of different agendas,” he said. “Some guys are going to try to be consistent and try to get it in by points because there aren’t going to be that many more different winners, and then you have guys that kind of have nothing to lose – the same way I’m going to race. … I think this is going to be one of the first races where that panic mode is really going to set in like, ‘OK, we have to win or we’re out,’ and I think that’s going to start coming into play in our races quite a bit.”
It’s all why Kenseth remains cautious. He added that any notion that only Chase contenders expect to be factors Saturday night is probably wrong.
“There’s a lot of incentives if you win races, so I don’t really buy the fact that anybody is really folding it in and getting ready for the Chase and saying, ‘OK, we don’t care about the next three weeks,’” he said.
“I think it’s a huge event and everybody wants to win at Bristol – it’s the Bristol night race. I think it’s one of the most hyped, intense, entertaining races that we have all year and I think that all 43 guys are fired up for that and they’re going to go out and race to win no matter what they’re telling everybody.”