|Busch and Johnson don't want Kenseth to get too far away|
For Matt Kenseth, the third time was not the charm.
The 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion failed last Sunday to fashion a record, third consecutive victory to start the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ but finished seventh to maintain his championship lead.
Kenseth, who heads five-time champion Jimmie Johnson by eight points and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch by 12 markers gets a second shot at a “triple” in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway (2 p.m. ET, ESPN, Motor Racing Network Radio, SiriusXM Satellite Radio).
The Wisconsin veteran is the reigning winner of Kansas Speedway’s fall event and returned earlier this year to capture the STP 400. He won in a Roush Fenway Racing Ford in 2013, and in his current No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota this April.
Chase rivals looking for Kenseth to stumble in the nation’s heartland may have a long wait.
Kenseth has finished among the top five in four consecutive races and top 10 six straight times. He’s also led nine of the track’s most recent 11 races and owns a third-best Driver Rating of 110.0 trailing only Johnson and two-time Kansas winner Greg Biffle. He’s also won two Coors Light Poles.
Kenseth, Busch and the Gibbs organization have dominated the schedule’s intermediate tracks in 2013, the debut season for NASCAR’s Gen-6 race car. Their Toyota Camrys have won nine times on intermediate tracks with Kenseth visiting Victory Lane at Kansas, Chicagoland, Kentucky and Las Vegas; six of those came at tracks measuring 1.5 miles.
Beginning with Sunday’s race, four of the post season’s final seven events will be conducted on 1.5-mile tracks.
“We had probably one of the best cars I’ve ever driven at Kansas and in the spring we were able to turn that into a pole and a win,” said Kenseth. “Things change a lot though and going back this weekend, they’re bringing a different tire and we all have a test there on this Thursday.
“You always look forward to going back to tracks where you’ve had some good fortune and some success. Hopefully, we can get the car dialed in and have a good day again.”
Johnson Summons Statistics From Title Seasons Past
Matt Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing are having a sensational season.
Jimmie Johnson, however, says don’t forget about me – and emphatically so.
Johnson’s Dover International Speedway victory on Sunday was his 23rd in 93 Chase races, a winning percentage of 24.7. His record-setting eighth win set a Dover record, separating Johnson from NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Richard Petty.
It also moves the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion to second in standings, eight points behind Kenseth.
Johnson’s fifth victory of the season – and first in this year’s Chase – may have additional implications. In each of his championship campaigns, the 38-year-old Californian won at least five times overall and once during the postseason.
In other words, Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick are on track to win title No. 6.
“We came to a good track,” said Johnson, “And we got what we needed to get done.
“You’ve got to win when you’re at your best race track.”
Statistically speaking, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus can look ahead to Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 with continued optimism. The 1.5-mile track also is among the team’s best with two wins (most recently in fall 2011) and nine consecutive top-10 finishes for an overall average finish of 7.6.
Johnson also has led eight of the last 10 Kansas races, contributing to a series-best Driver Rating of 119.1.
“The bigger, faster tracks, I feel really good about our equipment,” said Johnson, who finished third in April’s STP 400 and ninth in last year’s Kansas Chase race.
Neither Johnson nor his Hendrick Motorsports teammates have been able to score on tracks measuring 1.5 miles in 2013 – the first season for their Gen-6 Chevrolet SS race cars. Conversely, Kenseth and teammate Kyle Busch have scored six such victories.
Busch Must Avoid Previous Kansas Speedway Pitfalls
With a trio of top-five finishes – two of them seconds – and an average Chase finish of 3.0, Kyle Busch very well could be on the way to his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Busch’s best previous average finish over the first three Chase races, 12.0, came in 2010.
To maintain the momentum, however, he’ll have to survive this weekend’s round at Kansas Speedway.
The 1.5-mile track has been anything but kind to the 28-time premier series winner. Besides being one of six tracks where Busch hasn’t won, Kansas truly has been a thorn in the 28-year-old driver’s side.
Busch has no top fives and just two top 10s – the best a seventh in 2006 – in 12 visits to Kansas Speedway. His average finish of 22.4 is third-worst in Sprint Cup competition behind two other Chase tracks, Homestead-Miami Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.
The Las Vegas driver has finished on the lead lap just 50% of the time and has failed to complete three starts – among them this season’s STP 400 and last fall’s Hollywood Casino 400 in which his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was felled by accidents.
His Driver Rating of 79.0 is 18th best in the series and 11th among Chase qualifiers. Busch, however, is not deterred by his previous lack of success.
“I’m looking forward to Kansas with the roll we’re on,” he said. “I thought we were running decent there last fall. Actually, I was leading and I spun myself out while I was leading. So, hopefully, we have a good car like that this time around and I don’t make a mistake.”
Mantra For Harvick, Gordon, Biffle: Nothing Is Over ’Til We Decide It Is
After three Chase races In 2006, Jimmie Johnson sat eighth in the standings, a whopping 165 points behind then-leader Jeff Burton. That, of course, was under the “old” points structure. Under the current one, that 165 figure roughly equates to 33 points.
Over the next seven races, Johnson slashed that deficit to shreds, winning his first championship.
So for the likes of Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle, there’s a precedent for major comebacks. Over? Nothing is over until they decide it is. Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Heck no.
A look at the aforementioned three, and how their prospects look at Kansas…
Kevin Harvick: Currently 39 points behind leader Matt Kenseth, Harvick has yet to score a win at Kansas. He has six top 10s at Kansas, but only one top five (a third in 2010).
Jeff Gordon: Currently 39 points behind Kenseth, Gordon won the first two NSCS races ever held at Kansas, in 2001-02. More recently, his results have dipped, with only one top 10 in the last four races.
Greg Biffle: Of the three, Biffle is probably the favorite to take home the Kansas trophy. Currently 41 points behind Kenseth, Biffle has two wins at Kansas, as well as seven top fives and nine top 10s.
Spoilers Sporting K.C. Swagger
Throughout the Chase’s nine-year history, Kansas Speedway has often offered a welcome opportunity for non-Chase drivers to enter back into the spotlight.
Joe Nemechek boasts the title as “first-ever spoiler,” becoming the first non-Chaser to win a Chase race – at Kansas Speedway in 2004. The trend continued in 2006 and 2007, with Kansas Chase victories by Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle, respectively.
So we may be in store for a surprise this Sunday in Kansas – but the odds remain heavily in favor of Chasers going 4-for-4 to open the Chase. For one, it’s been almost two years since a spoiler won a Chase race. The last came at Phoenix in November of 2011, when Kasey Kahne won while driving for Red Bull Racing. And secondly, Chase competitors are dominating in an unprecedented fashion. At Dover last Sunday, Chase drivers made up the entire top-10 – the first time in Chase history that has happened.
But two names, in particular, could play the spoiler role on Sunday: Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin, who missed the spring Kansas race with a back injury, won at the 1.5-mile track in 2012, and has three top five finishes there in the last six races. Keselowski won at Kansas in 2011, and has finished in the top 10 at Kansas in four of the last five races.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Etc.
Justin Allgaier, currently sixth in NASCAR Nationwide Series points, will make his second career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start his weekend at Kansas in the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet. He finished 27th in his first start, at Chicagoland Speedway in September. … Kyle Larson, currently ninth in NASCAR Nationwide points, will make his NASCAR Sprint Cup debut the No. 51 Chevrolet at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 12. In addition, he will run the NSCS race in Martinsville on Oct. 27. In August, EGR announced that Larson would take over the reins of the No. 42 Target Chevy SS beginning in 2014.