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It should come as no surprise that a driver who has spent a career flying under the radar in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is at his best while the sport churns in a chaotic whirlwind of controversy.
Welcome to winning, Matt Kenseth-style.
As fallout from a Richmond rumpus continues to rain down on the sport, Kenseth just keeps on winning — while staying well above the fray.
The first-year Joe Gibbs Racing driver won Chase race No. 2 on Sunday in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, his second straight victory in as many playoff events. He did so in his milestone 500th Cup start — a feat the 41-year-old summed up in his classic deadpan manner, saying, “All this really means is that I’m old.”
If experience equates to success, then the 13-driver Chase field should be on high alert. Further, Kenseth’s wildly successful maiden voyage in JGR’s Toyotas — the victory in Loudon was his career-best seventh of the season — should have the competition downright nervous. After all, he already holds a full race-worth of a points lead over one-third of the competition. Not that Kenseth is preoccupied with such stats.
“My outlook or approach is really not any different, honestly,” Kenseth said of his hot start to the 10-race playoff. “I know it’s kind of cliché, but it really is one week at a time, especially right now. If you get down toward the end (of the Chase) and you’re lucky enough to have a lead or something, maybe you start looking at that more.”
His tempered approach is predicated on a points format that awards consistency; where poor finishes are more damaging than sterling finishes rewarded.
“Two whole months of racing is a lot of racing, and in this system one bad finish and you’re behind, said Kenseth.”
When examining the upcoming slate of races, though, poor finishes aren’t the first thing that come to mind for Kenseth. He has two wins at Dover, the next stop on tour; he’s won the last two visits to Kansas; was a 2011 winner at Charlotte and is the defending race-winner at Talladega.
“Again, anything can happen anywhere,” said Kenseth, downplaying the advantageous schedule. “You can be at your best track and have whatever happen and get a bad finish. But certainly (I) have a lot of confidence in the next three tracks coming up.”
The first speedbump — Talladega’s crapshoot aside — comes fives weeks down the road, when the sport hits the half-mile Martinsville Speedway. It’s a venue where Kenseth has yet to record a win and has only three top-5 showings in 27 starts. Even then, he doesn’t seem overly concerned, saying, “I’m actually pretty confident going to Martinsville.”
And why not? Four of Kenseth’s 2013 wins have come at racetracks — Chicagoland, Darlington, Kentucky and now New Hampshire — where he’d failed to post a win previously. So what’s different this season than in year’s past?
“I think a lot of this sport is about combinations,” Kenseth explained. “When you think of Jimmie (Johnson) and Chad (Knaus), Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon, there wasn’t anybody that could beat them. It has to start with the organization that has the fast cars and have all that stuff — but you’ve got to have the right group (of people), and I’m really fortunate right now to have the right group.”
Included in that “group” — though relatively distanced — has been Kenseth’s chief Chase challenger, teammate Kyle Busch, who finished second the last two weeks to the No. 20 car. And that’s kept Kenseth honest.
“Matt is just executing at the end of the (race), which is what you’re supposed to do,” Busch said.
“I won eight of the first 26 (in 2008) and then fell flat on my face (in the Chase). Matt is doing a really good job — he’s put it all together.”
So while the questionable events that transpired in Richmond’s transfer race continue to demand a white-hot spotlight within the sport, the pre-Chase favorites of Kenseth, Busch and the sleeping giant of Johnson methodically rack up top-flight finishes.
That fact isn’t lost on the current points-leader:
“When you look at what the 48 (Johnson) can do and the 18 (Busch) — and they’re going to be good everywhere — you’d better be good everywhere if you’re thinking that you’re going to be a contender.”
There are still eight long weeks remaining in NASCAR’s 2013 championship chase, but as is typically the case, those contenders have already put the field on notice.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro