by Ryan Isley
Vince Lombardi famously said that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Wisconsin native and diehard Green Bay Packers fan Matt Kenseth might not exactly agree with the legendary head coach.
Kenseth won the then-NASCAR Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) championship by winning just one race but accumulating 25 top-10 finishes in 2003, beating Jimmie Johnson by 90 points under NASCAR’s old point system. Ryan Newman went to victory lane eight times in 36 races that season, but finished sixth in points.
The next season, NASCAR introduced a new points system and a new format – the Chase for the then-Nextel Cup (again, now Sprint Cup). The newly implemented system was designed to weigh wins heavier than in the past, but the sport’s top decision makers denied that there was a link to Kenseth winning the prior year’s title despite him being the first driver since Benny Parsons in 1973 to win the championship with just a single victory. In fact, nine of the 10 champions before Kenseth had tallied at least three wins in their championship seasons, with five of them winning at least 5 races.
Ironically, Kenseth led the series with five wins in 2002 but finished eighth in the standings.
Fast forward to 2014, where wins mean more than ever in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings and entrance to the Chase. Kenseth has yet to win in the season’s first 14 races, yet sits second in the standings. He is the only driver of the top nine in the standings to be winless this season and would actually drop to 11th when the Chase begins because of that lack of a win.
But I am picking this as the week that Kenseth breaks through with his first win of 2014.
At some point this season, the 42-year-old driver of the No.20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is going to win. He led the series last year with seven wins and had three victories by this time. He had back-to-back third-place finishes at Charlotte and Dover before finishing 25th last week at Pocono. He also has eight top-10 finishes in his last 10 races, seven of those in being a seventh-place finish or better.
Kenseth’s average finish of 10.4 this season ranks him just behind Jeff Gordon, who has an average finish of 9.4. Those same two drivers are not coincidentally tied for first with 10 top-10 finishes this season. They have each also finished on the lead lap in 13 of the 14 races, the only two drivers to do so this season.
He now heads to a track where has had career success when Michigan International Speedway hosts the Quicken Loans 400 this Sunday. In 29 career Sprint Cup races at Michigan, Kenseth has been to victory lane twice, with 12 top-5 and 18 top-10 finishes. He has finished 10th or better in five of his last seven races in Michigan, with four finishes of sixth or better in those seven races.
At tracks where he has raced at least four times in the Sprint Cup Series, only his average finish at Texas Motor Speedway (8.2) is better than his 9.6 average at Michigan. He has an average finish of 4.7 at Kentucky Speedway in just three races. If you add in NASCAR’s other two-mile track (Auto Club Speedway in Fontana) with Michigan, Kenseth has five wins in 51 races at tracks of that distance, a win percentage of 9.8%.
Kenseth struggled in the first practice at Michigan on Friday, as he was the 27th-fastest car on the track. But at Michigan, it isn’t where you start that matters as much as where you finish. Four of the last five winners at the track have started 13th or worse, with only Joey Logano bucking that trend by winning from the pole last August. In the last five June races, the winner started from an average of 17th.
Between that first practice and the time that the green flag drops on Sunday, Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff will find a way to make adjustments and get their Toyota into victory lane. If he takes the checkered flag in the Quicken Loans 400, Kenseth will be the 11th winner in 15 races this season. While he won’t get to hoist the trophy bearing the legendary Lombardi’s name that his current car owner Joe Gibbs has raised three times, Kenseth will gladly take the trophy he hasn’t had his hands on since 2006.
If Kenseth pulls this one off, Gibbs might even allow him to wear his Aaron Rodgers jersey at the team headquarters. Ok, maybe we shouldn’t go that far. But if he wins the Sprint Cup Series championship…