PHOENIX, Ariz. — Story by Race Chaser Online West Coast correspondent Ryan O’Hara — Jerry Markland/Getty Images North America photo — In 2013, Matt Kenseth won seven races. So far this year, he’s had similar consistency, but has not found victory lane through 25 races this season.
Last season was Kenseth’s first with Joe Gibbs Racing after 13 years with Roush Fenway Racing, which produced 24 Sprint Cup Series victories, two Daytona 500 titles and a championship in 2003.
Most drivers break from an organization because they believe they will find more success with their new organization. It’s like the beginning of a new chapter, with mixed results for the drivers who have tried it over the years.
For example, Kurt Busch won 14 Cup Series races for Roush Fenway Racing until his departure from the team at the end of 2005. Since, Busch has raced for three different teams and has won just 11 races.
On the flip side of the coin, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, and Joey Logano are a couple of examples of drivers who have improved after an organization change. Busch, Kenseth’s JGR teammate, finished fourth in points with four victories in 2013.
Observers predicted Kenseth would see similar results in 2014. However, despite the consistent numbers, many onlookers have downplayed Kenseth’s 2014 season as a ‘struggle.’
Let’s look at the numbers. In 2013, Kenseth had 12 top fives and 20 top tens. Compared to six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, he had 16 top fives and 24 top tens, including six wins. In an entire 36 race season, Kenseth would have finished 56 points behind Johnson, which is just over a full race.
After 25 races this season, Kenseth has 10 top fives and 16 top ten finishes, which is on pace to better his stat-line from last season.
The difference is that lack of a visit to victory lane.
“We want to win,” Kenseth reiterated following this weekend’s event at Atlanta. “We’ve been doing the best we can do every week. Obviously with the season we had last year I didn’t think we’d be sitting here at the end of August without a win for sure.”
Kenseth’s struggles are not unusual for a runner-up driver the previous season. For example, Jeff Gordon (2007), Carl Edwards (2008), Mark Martin (2009), Denny Hamlin (2010), Carl Edwards (2011), and Clint Bowyer (2012) all had down seasons in their next season after the runner-up championship effort.
Several teams who have finished as a runner-up have circled a struggle in team morale after having come so close but no cigar. On the other hand, some teams have trouble revamping their cars to new rules packages implemented by NASCAR.
However, Kenseth feels that bad luck has been the cause of his troubles.
“We started off really solid,” Kenseth said. “I feel that our performance has gotten steadily better, but we have been caught up in a lot of stuff.”
In NASCAR’s new Chase format, drivers must win a race to be automatically eligible for the Chase. Since there cannot be 16 different drivers who have won a race by the cutoff at Richmond this weekend, the remaining spots will be filled by drivers without victories highest in points.
For Kenseth, he clinched a spot in the Chase via points after finishing second this past weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
As for the field, 16 drivers will be fighting for two spots. A win will get any one of them in as long as they are inside the top 30 in points.
As far as points eligibility, only Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, and Kyle Larson are eligible to potentially make it on points alone.
For Paul Menard, Austin Dillon, Jamie McMurray, Brian Vickers, Marcos Ambrose, Casey Mears, Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse, Danica Patrick, Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier, David Gilliiland, David Ragan and Cole Whitt, it’s win or go home.
Meanwhile for Matt Kenseth, he can sit back and relax. Regardless of what happens, he knows he’s in the championship fight.
Now, all he wants to do is win.