by Ryan Isley
Matt Kenseth is a perfect example that it’s funny how things work out sometimes.
In the last season before NASCAR implemented the Chase for the Sprint Cup to determine a champion, Kenseth won the series championship despite finding victory lane just once. Last season, he led the series with seven wins but lost the championship to Jimmie Johnson. So far this season, Kenseth is winless, yet sits 4th in the standings and a win this week would guarantee that he is the first driver locked into a spot in the Sprint Cup Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in two weeks.
The idea that Kenseth would win at Texas is by no means a far-fetched one. The only driver in the Chase with more experience at Texas than Kenseth’s 24 races is Jeff Gordon with 27, but there is nobody in the Chase with the success record Kenseth has at the track.
Carl Edwards has three wins to Kenseth’s two victories and Denny Hamlin, has two as well, but Kenseth has shown a propensity for consistently good finishes at Texas. Kenseth’s average finishing position of 8.2 at the track is more than two full spots better than the next-closest Chase competitor, Hamlin at 10.8. It is also more than one full spot ahead of Johnson’s 9.5, the second-best average finishing spot of all active drivers.
In his 24 races at Texas, Kenseth has finished in the top-10 17 times and has brought his car home in the top-5 13 times. Gordon is the only other driver in the Chase who has more than five top-10 finishes, as he has nine of them in his 27 attempts. In the last eight races at Texas, Kenseth has finished outside the top-5 just twice, when he finished 12th in the spring race last season and 7th in this season’s spring race. In the last 18 races at Texas, he has just one finish worse than 12th – a 20th-place finish in the spring race of 2010. In those 18 races, he has 12 top-5s, including one win and four runner-up finishes.
It isn’t just Kenseth who has had success at the track recently, either. The entire Joe Gibbs Racing team has done pretty well at Texas over the last two seasons. In the two races last season and the one race so far this season, the three Gibbs cars have averaged a finish of 7.9 between the three cars, with the worst finish being 13th twice. Kyle Busch won the spring race last season, with Brian Vickers (filling in for Hamlin) finished 8th. In the fall race last season, Kenseth finished 4th, Hamlin 7th and Busch 13th. In this season’s race, Busch finished 3rd, Kenseth finished 7th and Hamlin finished 13th. All told, that is a win, three top-5s and six top-10s for the Gibbs team.
One thing that could keep Kenseth from winning at Texas – or from winning the championship all together – is the revenge factor. Last weekend at Martinsville, Kenseth ended any hope Kevin Harvick had of winning and clinching a spot in the Championship Round when he wrecked Harvick on lap 229. While Kenseth contends it was just an honest mistake and Harvick happened to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time, Harvick was understandably frustrated afterwards.
Kenseth may not have meant to wreck Harvick, but if there is one thing this new Chase format has provided, it is storylines. Whether intentional or not, Kenseth vs. Harvick is going to be a storyline until either something happens or the season ends. This isn’t the first time tempers so far in the Chase, but it might not be a wise idea for Harvick to interfere with Kenseth this week. If Harvick takes out Kenseth at Texas, Kenseth could come right back and do the same thing to Harvick the following week at Phoenix, where Harvick has a career-high five wins.
Barring any wrecks – purposeful or accidental – Kenseth has a good shot to pick up his first win of the season at Texas. Doing so would clinch his spot in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship Round. You know what they say – “everything is bigger in Texas.” A win for Kenseth would be about as big as it gets.