Kenseth, Under The Radar, Is Now In Full View
Matt Kenseth was the guy in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup you never heard from.
Other contenders, like Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, overshadowed him.
They got all the headlines, and rightly so, because they were the drivers who accomplished the most during the first four races of the 10-event “playoffs.”
Certainly Kenseth never fell out of the hunt. He just seldom got noticed.
Maybe the Roush Fenway driver wanted it that way. At Charlotte Motor Speedway a Ford media official said that during Kenseth’s press conference at the team hauler, he never spoke of the Chase.
“He talked about Talladega and Martinsville,” the official said, referring to the upcoming races. “It’s like he’s flying under the radar.”
Not any longer.
Kenseth won the Bank of America 500 at CMS to earn his first victory in the Chase and his third of the season. The win propelled him from fifth to third in the point standings, seven behind leader Edwards with five races remaining.
Kenseth is in an excellent position to win his second career championship. The first came in 2003, the last year NASCAR utilized its traditional point system before it adopted a “playoff” format.
Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson, the headline-grabbing driver whose victory last week in the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas boosted his quest for a sixth consecutive title, got involved in a late-race crash at CMS.
He was jostling for position with Ryan Newman with 17 laps remaining in the 334-lap race when he slid and whacked the outside wall.
He fell to 34th place in the race and from third to eighth in the rankings, 35 behind Edwards. He now faces a much harder path to the championship, just one week after he seemed to have gained momentum.
Kenseth passed Busch with 24 laps remaining and never faded. He quickly put distance between himself and his Joe Gibbs Racing rival after the final restart and finished almost a full second ahead of him.
“I had fun racing with Kyle there,” said Kenseth, whose other win his season came at Dover in May. “We had a pretty decent restart, the second-to-last one, and got by Denny and Carl and ran Kyle down.
“It was tough to get by him and I’m glad we could make it happen because it was challenging.”
It appeared Kenseth would not be a factor in the Chase after the first race at Chicago, where he finished 21st and was 10th in points.
However, he didn’t finish worse than sixth in the next three races – his best was a fourth at Kansas – and rose to fifth in points, only 12 behind Edwards, going into Charlotte.
Despite his surge in the standings, and his status as a title contender, Kenseth attracted little media attention.
“I don’t really care about how much coverage you get for doing certain things,” Kenseth said. “If somebody wants to say I’m boring or whatever, well, I was hired to try to go win races and try to run good and that’s what I try to do every week.
“It doesn’t really matter to me that much what everybody thinks. We’re in it or out of it or
whatever. What’s important to me is trying to win races and trying to be competitive and go do the best job we can do every week.”
Edwards, Kenseth’s teammate at Roush Fenway, finished third to keep his impressive Chase record intact. He has not finished worse than sixth through five races and his lead over Harvick, who was sixth at CMS, is just five points.
“We went from one point ahead to five points, so that’s something,” Edwards said. “We didn’t know what to expect coming in here, but our Ford was fast.
“My pit crew did a good job. Bob (Osborne, crew chief) made the right calls on the box and it ended up being a good night. I’m just glad we didn’t tear anything up. We dodged a bullet here. This has been a tough track for us.”
Runnerup Busch, who led a race-high 111 points, seems to have overcome a sluggish start to the Chase and remains in contention for the championship. He’s fourth in the standings, 18 behind Edwards.
Drivers ranked fifth through eighth in points still have a shot at the title but clearly have to rely on drivers ahead of them to experience problems.
Johnson, a six-time winner at Charlotte, is one of them. But it must be remembered he was counted out earlier in the Chase when he was a distant 10th in points.
“We just have to go racing,” Johnson said. “That is all there is to it. There are five races left and, right now, all we have are those five races.
“It was definitely not the night we wanted. This is not going to help us win a sixth championship. But I promise you, this team and myself, we won’t quit. We will go for every point we can from here on out and hopefully we are still champions at the end.”
For Chase entries Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin, it’s pretty much “wait ‘til next year.”
Kenseth, however, is obviously in a very good position to win the championship.
“Yeah, you’d love to be able to win another one,” Kenseth said. “But, I tell you what, they’re hard to win and you’ve got to have everything go right and you’ve got to have a lot of nights like we’ve had here and the
last two or three weeks.
“And the next five, I think you’re gonna have
to run in the top five every week to have a shot at it. That’s just the way I feel with the way those other guys are running.
“So we’ll just keep taking it one week at a time.”