Despite not winning this year, consistency has Kenseth back in the running for the Chase
Kyle Busch may be getting all the attention, having won seven of this season's first 19 Sprint Cup races, but Matt Kenseth is okay with that.
While the younger Busch brother has been the talk of NASCAR for his winning ways, Kenseth has been quietly mounting a huge comeback in the Cup standings.
After finishing 38th at Richmond just over two months ago, the Cambridge, Wis., native sat 22nd in the standings. His chances to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the fifth consecutive year seemed pretty bleak.
But since Richmond, Kenseth has been nearly as red-hot as Busch, with three top-five and five other top-10 finishes in the nine races since then, including ninth this past Saturday at Chicago. His worst finish in that streak has been 18th (New Hampshire).
Do the math, and Kenseth has climbed 13 positions in the standings, going from what seemed like an almost certainty not to qualify for the Chase to a driver many are starting to consider a dark horse to win the championship.
To say Kenseth and crew chief Chip Bolin are sitting pretty when it comes to making the Chase may be an exaggeration. But with seven races to go, Kenseth and the No. 17 Ford are in eighth place despite not winning a race this year. While the team is not completely comfortable, Kenseth is in a better position than a lot of other drivers.
For example, Kenseth is 564 points behind the series-leading Busch, but just 34 points ahead of 12th-ranked Denny Hamlin and only 61 points ahead of 13th-ranked Clint Bowyer, who would not make the Chase if it were to start today.
While some observers may be surprised at the comeback Kenseth has mounted so stealthily under the radar, it's not the first time he's done so. He also had to come from behind in 2006 to make the Chase.
In fact, Kenseth is the only driver in the Cup series to qualify for each of the first four editions of the Chase, thanks to his uncanny consistency from one season to the next.
"I feel good about what we've been able to do the last couple of months," Kenseth said. "I'm comfortable with how we're running, we're a lot more competitive and we're operating more like a championship team here the last month or two. That gives me some confidence."
Kenseth was the last winner of the Winston Cup championship, doing so in 2003. He'd love to finally add a second championship to his mantle.
"We're not really in it yet," Kenseth said. "You can look at where we're at today, but it's not over until after Richmond (when the series returns there in early September for the final Chase qualifying race).
"Until then, you don't know if you're in or out unless you've got a big enough lead going in there. The goal is to keep getting some good finishes, hopefully win some races and get up in the standings further where you're in a comfortable spot where you can make it."
So let Busch have all the media and fan attention. Kenseth will go about his task like a worker ant, just trying to do the best job he can and with as little fanfare as possible.
"There's so much racing between now and Richmond," Kenseth said. "I don't really think about where we are in the points or where everybody else is.
"If we go out and run the way we're capable of running and run competitively up front, in the top five and the top 10 and contend for some wins, if we do the things we know we're capable of doing and get the finishes we're capable of getting, it doesn't matter what everybody else does because you'll be in (the Chase). If you can run competitively and finish in the top five, it'll all kind of work itself out."
Jerry Bonkowski is National NASCAR Columnist for Yahoo! Sports (Yahoo.com) and a featured contributor to Gatehouse News Service. He can be reached at NASCARColumnist@Yahoo.com.
THE KENSETH FILE
--Kenseth hails from Cambridge, Wis., one of three Cup and Nationwide series drivers from the Badger state. The other two are Johnny Sauter and Scott Wimmer.
--NASCAR chairman Brian France came up with the Chase format – to put more emphasis on winning – after Kenseth won just one race en route to his only Cup championship thus far in 2003.
--Like several of his competitors, Kenseth is an accomplished pilot and typically flies himself and wife Katie to and from races in their private plane.
--Kenseth calls Cambridge his "getaway place from the rest of the crazy world." He spends much of the off-season there snowmobiling and hunting, among other recreational pursuits.