Matt Kenseth is reaching uncharted territory with Joe Gibbs Racing in just his first year driving the No. 20 Toyota. Sure, everyone knew he’d blow former driver Joey Logano’s numbers out of the water; Logano, still developing at age 23, was never consistently competitive in Cup after being brought up the ranks too quickly. But what the 2003 Cup champ is pursuing now, after a shocking late-race surge to victory at Kentucky, is a record-setting year for JGR that eclipses even the two titles won by the man who put Home Depot and this car on the map: Tony Stewart.
Check out the best stat lines with Stewart driving the car: six wins (2000), three poles (2005), and 1,845 laps led (also ’05). Kenseth? Through 17 races, this season he’s got four wins, two poles, and 960 laps out in front. Double those numbers and you’ll see a shocking truth. Even during the glory years, when Stewart and Greg Zipadelli all but added a shade of orange to every checkered flag, JGR has never seen success from the No. 20 car like it’s seeing now.
Clearly, motivation can be a powerful thing, a 41-year-old one-upping Ford and sponsors who felt he was expendable. But you’d have to think that even when Joe and J.D. Gibbs hotly pursued Kenseth, persuading him over a period of months to leave Roush Fenway Racing, they never anticipated the type of numbers he’s putting up right now — especially in Year One. With rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. still without a top-10 finish, by comparison, nearly halfway through the season at RFR you wonder if Jack Roush loses sleep at night over this one.
Speaking of losing sleep, as we go “Through the Gears” we know there’s one superstar guaranteed to do so this week. Here’s why:
FIRST GEAR: Jimmie Johnson needs to figure these restarts out
He’s a five-time champ who, 17 races through the 2013 season, has been on cruise control, leading Carl Edwards atop the standings by 38 points. He’s on pace for 1,961 laps led, his best in four years and the average finish of 9.4 would set a new career record. On paper, the No. 48 seems virtually invincible come Chase time.
The problem? That letter-sized sheet of paper with all those stats on it can’t press down the accelerator pedal. And lately, Mr. Johnson has had a huge problem figuring out exactly how to do that when the race turns green. It seems like Dover last month, when Juan Pablo Montoya slow-played a restart that got the No. 48 team penalized after a dominating day, is still stuck inside his head. It cost him at Kentucky, where a car that led 182 of 267 laps was second after pit strategy once again gave Kenseth control coming to the green. Johnson, in “follow the leader” position, had no idea when to come up to speed, lost several spots and then spun out.
“We were kind of in an awkward situation in that restart there,” he said. “The No. 20 (Matt Kenseth) broke the pace car speed, which you aren't supposed to, but, they aren't calling guys on that so I need to start trying that in the future. And then we were like three- and four-wide going in the corner, then something happened with the air and just kind of turned me around.”
Yes, the restarts at Kentucky were what second place Jamie McMurray characterized as “strange” — with added importance considering how difficult it is to pass. Sunday marked just the third year for Cup drivers at Kentucky, so many of them are also still trying to figure things out like that restart box. But no one seemed to struggle more than the No. 48, who’s now given away two victories in just one month.
For better or worse, restarts today define where you’re going to finish in NASCAR. Five laps into a green-flag run — especially at intermediate tracks — cars seem magnetically repulsed by each other, spreading out into their own personal space where passing becomes a game of chess. Johnson has to get more aggressive, realizing at Dover, if he sneaks ahead as the second-place car into Turn 1 all that’s needed is to sit back and let the leader pass back to avoid a penalty. He’s the rare guy who’s got a car fast enough to make up the ground lost.
Some might say Johnson doesn’t need these extra trophies. But the fact he’s in “testing mode,” already assured of a high seed in the postseason, is irrelevant. Practice makes perfect, and right now, this team is putting together all the best ways to lose a Chase where they should be an overwhelming favorite.
SECOND GEAR: As the Keselowski crumbles
Sunday’s big wreck involving Brad Keselowski was Kurt Busch’s fault — that much was clear after the No. 78 car tapped the No. 2 following a rough transition on the apron of the racetrack. But in a year where Kes has played innocent victim one too many times, that “bad luck moment” now puts him in position to be just the second reigning champ unable to make the Chase the following year. (Stewart, 2006).
“The one thing we do know is that we have struggled before as a team,” said crew chief Paul Wolfe, after the team tumbled to 13th in points. “And we have worked through that and put ourselves in position to be champions.”
But chemistry can only do so much with Fords that have been inconsistent in terms of speed. Daytona may be this duo’s best chance in the near future, considering the way plate races even things out. Did you know a Ford model hasn’t won at Loudon since 2008? Or at Indianapolis since 1999? Keselowski has also never won at a road course in Cup (Watkins Glen) and was uncompetitive at Pocono this June (16th). That crosses a lot of tracks off the list, and I don’t think this team can count on points to get them in with this black cloud that’s been following them.
THIRD GEAR: Toyota’s troubles solved?
Remember last month when at least one Toyota engine was almost guaranteed to go bust before the finish? They’re back to collecting trophies. Kenseth’s win was the second in a row for the Camry model, which also took three of the top-5 spots on this intermediate (Clint Bowyer was third while Kyle Busch, Kenseth’s JGR teammate, ran fifth). That gives Toyota seven victories on the season, tied with Chevrolet as it tries to overcome a decade’s worth of dominance by the Bowtie Brigade when it comes to the manufacturer’s title.
Most importantly, on a track where horsepower does play a big factor, there were zero blown engines from TRD, along with no complaints. Busch was also able to muscle his way back through the field after an early spin, showcasing the extra edge JGR has showed on 1.5-mile ovals. The jury’s still out, to a certain extent — we need to see months of this pattern before feeling safe the Chase won’t be a series of sad explosions — but it’s a huge confidence builder.
FOURTH GEAR: Bluegrass blues?
Yes, Saturday night’s race was rain-delayed, turning into the first Cup event postponed since 2012’s Daytona 500. But the number of empty seats at Kentucky was still disturbing, as tickets were available for a race that was sold out in its inaugural edition just two years ago. Traffic on that fateful weekend was horrific, as many fans were unable to make it to their seats before the start of the race and some have never forgiven the facility.
The racing, with Johnson out front and dominating most of the day, continued to be a bit of a mixed bag. Several drivers complained of ill-handling cars, with Kyle Busch also blaming a bad right-side Goodyear tire compound. But whatever the reason, this racetrack has yet to have a side-by-side, grinding battle to the finish that creates the type of memories fans will come back for. Now that the bloom is off the rose, it’s close to other historic speedways — like Bristol and Indianapolis — and has to fight for fans’ money in a tight economy. It was no accident certain questions were asked of drivers to get them praising what fans did come back after Saturday night.
The other issue concerns NASCAR’s Gen-6, still without a hang-your-hat race on this type of oval since Fontana. With these races making up half of the Chase, that’s a handling problem that needs to be fixed. Three minutes of restart action can’t be the only time fans see tough competition over a race that takes three hours — especially when it’s head-to-head with the mighty NFL.
You had to shake your head at Clint Bowyer “moving over” for Jamie McMurray, conceding second place down the stretch at Kentucky. Afraid of being spun out? Puh-lease. Points racing or no, that’s not what the fans pay money to see, something I don’t think we’d have ever envisioned before NASCAR’s current postseason format that can sometimes encourage that type of conservatism. … While Keselowski struggles, teammate Joey Logano has six straight top-11 finishes to put himself 10th in points. Consider where he’d be without that 25-point penalty earlier this season; it’s been an impressive recovery. … The Carl Edwards to Penske Racing rumor, while strongly denied this weekend, was puzzling. New crew chief Jimmy Fennig has brought new energy to the No. 99 and they’re clearly back on the upswing. … Denny Hamlin says he’ll finish the season after a mid-race wreck left him 104 points outside the top 20 and shaken inside the Infield Care Center. Owner Joe Gibbs has Brian Vickers right on his roster, along with Cup veteran Elliott Sadler, but claims he’ll let Hamlin make the decision on staying in the car. You wonder, though if a man who’s seen football players overdo it needs to step in here, take the competitive athlete aside and warn him about short-term vs. long-term career implications.
by Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter:@NASCARBowles