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Early-season favorites emerge as NASCAR hypes Gen-6 car


If Matt Kenseth were a betting man, he’d have bought a Play 4 ticket on the way out of Las Vegas.

The numbers? 3-3-3-3.

Kenseth, in the third race of the 2013 season, became career Sprint Cup driver number three to win a race on his birthday (joining Cale Yarborough and Kyle Busch). The new, third member of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable also has more career victories in Vegas (along with Auto Club Speedway) than any other track on the circuit: Three.

Too bad Richard Childress isn’t willing to part with that number, huh? To me, the number could also apply to something else we’re getting a sense of: the list of early title favorites. Has Kenseth snuck into that picture? Let’s find out while going “Through the Gears” after a weekend out in Sin City…

FIRST GEAR: The title is shaping up to be a Johnson-Keselowski affair
One driver was third, the other sixth. Neither was a factor for the win late at Vegas although they combined to lead a total of 78 laps. But a quick look at the first three races shows that Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, the same two men who battled down the stretch for the 2012 Cup Series title, are in cruise control up front.

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Leading the points is the No. 48 team, with top-10 starting spots in every event, an average finish of 3.0 and a Daytona 500 trophy on the shelf. Crew chief Chad Knaus, who was lauded for being ahead of the curve with NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow chassis, was expected to do the same with the Gen-6. That’s what you expect from the best mechanic in the sport, and to his credit, Knaus has delivered.

Sitting five points behind Hendrick’s top team is Keselowski, who has battled through far more adversity but still has the same number of top-10 results (three-for-three). Considering the offseason changeover (new manufacturer, new teammate, new engines) the speed and versatility Penske Racing’s top team has shown is just as impressive. It’s driver’s confidence as reigning champ is palpable, retaining his outspoken nature while continuing a role as an emerging leader within the sport. While Denny Hamlin’s “slap on the wrist” from NASCAR caused him to be a bit off on Sunday, finishing 15th, Keselowski has had no such detours after his talking-to at Daytona. That’s what separates the good from the great: an ability to tune out distractions and fight through the pressure.

The Gen-6 car was supposed to provide a big opportunity for the other teams to catch up to this duo. But the standings three races in aren’t an indictment on those changes; instead, it’s a showcase of how this rivalry is elevating both drivers to remain head and shoulders above everyone else. Too bad we have to wait until the Chase in September for them to push down on the accelerator for good.

SECOND GEAR: Meanwhile, Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing sit as sleepers
No question, anyone with a brain and a pulse expected Kenseth to outpace Joey Logano in Joe Gibbs’ No. 20 Toyota. But even the most optimistic of souls has to raise an eyebrow on what this new combination is doing. Three races in, Kenseth is one-half way towards the total number of victories that car has had in the past four years. His 128 laps led, a NASCAR best, is well on its way to eclipsing Logano’s four-year total of 337 in a matter of several weeks. If not for a faulty engine in the waning laps of the Daytona 500 this team could be out in front of everyone — a point that’s not been lost on its pilot.

“All three races we had a car, if everything would have went right, that we could have won,” he said Sunday night. “And it feels pretty awesome to have this win here.”

Kenseth’s emotions during and after Sunday’s victory made it clear he’s a man on a mission to prove the choice to leave Roush Fenway was the right one. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff has worked out well; his pit strategy of a fuel-only stop was the winning call.

So can JGR catch the top two? The beauty of it is that there is six months left in the regular season to fine-tune on intermediates. But unlike Kenseth, the rest of the stable has to stop shooting itself in the foot. Case in point: Kyle Busch’s speeding penalty, which knocked him out of the top spot at Vegas and threatened to derail his day. Denny Hamlin, for all the fan support he has surrounding the Gen-6 criticism, caused a huge distraction by reacting emotionally to the situation. Add in the motor problems and that’s why this Toyota trio remains a step below for the time being. But the speed is there.