Yes, there have been years when he’s won two races this early in a season, as he has this year, taking his second victory of the season on Sunday at Kansas Speedway. But at 41, Kenseth has learned to appreciate his opportunities even more.
And the opportunity he has at Joe Gibbs Racing is one Kenseth could savor all the way to the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
Kenseth, who won the title in 2003 with Roush Fenway Racing, has absolutely no regrets about leaving the organization he spent the first 14 years of his Cup career with. The support he’s received from his team and crew chief Jason Ratcliff, his teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch and Toyota Racing Development has provided Kenseth with the best platform he’s ever had to win races.
“Honestly, the reasons (for coming to JGR) were countless,” Kenseth said. “I’m not going to get into them all, but it was just — I just knew it was the right place for me with the right group at the right time and all that stuff. So I mean, there just wasn’t — honestly I just knew there wasn’t any doubt. I just knew that that was where I needed to be and where I felt like I had the best chance to be the most successful.”
While there have been a few setbacks, Kenseth has never questioned the strength of his team. When he experienced an engine issue at Daytona, it didn’t faze him. After all, Kenseth had led 86 laps before the engine expired.
He followed up the next week at Phoenix with a seventh-place finish. Two weeks later at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kenseth also had Kasey Kahne in his rear-view mirror as he did on Sunday at Kansas, but experience, determination and an assist from spotter Chris “Crazy” Osborne helped the No. 20 maintain the point to the finish.
At Bristol, bad luck factored in after Jeff Gordon blew a tire in front of the No. 20 Toyota. But again, Kenseth had an incredibly fast car and led 85 laps before his day ended. Kenseth led a total of 106 laps between Fontana and Martinsville — the latter a track where he struggled in the past — and finished 12th last week while Busch went to Victory Lane. What Kenseth gained from that experience was that even when he’s not the fastest JGR car on the track, the potential is certainly there.
“Well, I think it can always go better, but things have been pretty good from a performance standpoint,” Kenseth said. “As an organization one of our cars — if all the stars would have aligned — could have won every race this year if everything would have worked out. The only place I feel like we really kind of somewhat missed it was California and the 18 (of Busch) won there. Other than that we’ve had cars that have been capable of running in the top three or four every week.
“Did I expect that? I kind of did. I’m not a guy — I’m usually a I hate to say I’m a glass-half-empty guy, but instead of talking about it I like to do it and then talk about it. I don’t like to make predictions. I’m just not that guy. But anyway, I couldn’t have had a better feeling about it all when I decided to do it, and certainly that feeling hasn’t changed. I feel like it’s really a special group. I think (crew chief) Jason (Ratcliff) is a special guy. It’s a special organization. Man, they’ve got some great race cars and TRD does a great job with the engines. They’ve got everything they need there to win races and championships.”
Still, if Kenseth continues this frenetic pace in the closing laps, the team might have to keep a medic close by for Ratcliff. After the race, the crew chief said to his driver, “Man, I have to catch my breath here, dude. You had me nervous. I won’t last very long if you keep that up.”
With three laps remaining, Kenseth bobbled off of Turn 2 and nearly opened the door for Kahne but he gathered the car up to finish 0.150-seconds ahead of the No. 5 Chevy. Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer rounded out the top five.
After eight races together, Ratcliff has led Kenseth to career wins No. 25 and 26. Kenseth is eighth in the points standings and trails leader Johnson by 59 markers. While Ratcliff is encouraged that the team is jelling, he realizes there’s plenty of racing remaining until the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins in September.
“We’re running well, and yes, we’re winning races and doing the things we need to do, but I feel like we have a lot of room to grow as far as our race car,” Ratcliff said. “I feel like there’s still a lot of speed to find to be a contender in the Chase, and I feel like the adjustments we make from not necessarily from practice to the race but throughout the race, these races are long. You can be fast for 300 miles and let the thing get away from you at the end. That’s what makes them so difficult.
“So we have a lot of room to grow, which is good, considering that we’re — as well as we’re doing now. So we’re looking forward to it, but we still have a lot of work ahead of us.”
Michael Waltrip Racing was the only organization to put three cars in the top 10 at Kansas Speedway on Sunday.
Martin Truex Jr., who led the second-most laps (46) for the second week in a row, paced the company with a fourth-place finish. With consecutive top-five finishes, Truex has vaulted from 25th before Texas to 14th in the points standings in the last two weeks. He’s 36 points outside of the spots that will lock in to the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“These newer tracks, we’re just missing it a little bit,” Truex said over the radio. “That was just like Vegas. Damn, I can’t keep the rear end under it without being too tight. We’ll figure it out. You guys did awesome, though. Thank you.
“We need to put a bunch of these together, we’ll be in good shape and win some races. We’ll go to Darlington and whip their asses.”
Hometown favorite Clint Bowyer finished fifth but fell one spot to ninth in the points standings. Mark Martin salvaged a ninth-place finish despite plowing into Jamie McMurray on the restart following the race’s fifth caution on Lap 115.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s 11th-place showing was his best effort of the season and the top finish of the Roush Fenway Racing stable on Sunday. Stenhouse led the STP 400 twice for a total of 26 laps — 25 of the circuits came after passing his teammate Carl Edwards, who finished 17th.
“He came down there and slid up in front of us a couple times and I had to check up, but it was cool getting to lead some laps for Roush Fenway and for everyone in Boston,” said Stenhouse, referencing the company’s relationship with co-owner John Henry, who also owns the Red Sox, and owner Jack Roush’s pledge to donate $100 for every lap one of his drivers led. “At least we’ll be able to donate a little something. I just wish we were able to lead the last few.
“It was fun. We started up front, ran up front, lost our track position and then got it back and was able to lead some laps. We pitted under green and it really got us when the caution came out, but, all in all, I think we can take a lot of positives from this weekend. We were fast in practice, fast in qualifying and made the car better through the race and that’s what it’s all about is making your car better throughout the race and I think we did that today.”
27: How many seasons have passed since three consecutive races were won from the pole.
20: Cars on the lead lap at the end of the race.
8: Race leaders.
13: Lead changes.
Sam Hornish Jr.’s return to the Sprint Cup Series was short-lived on Sunday. Hornish, unfortunately, was caught up in a five-car pile that ignited when Marcos Ambrose lost control of his car on the backstretch on Lap 182.
“I couldn’t see anything,” Hornish said. “I saw the back of the 34 or 38, I’m not sure which one it was, and then I saw (Ambrose’s car) sitting sideways right at the exit of the corner. I lifted and turned down, which made my hit to the inside wall harder because as soon as you lift and put all that weight up there it gives me enough turn to try to get away from the 9 (of Ambrose), but then I can’t get it back in the other direction. It’s too bad for the guys who work on this SKF Penske Ford. I just wish we could have done a little bit better. We got off on our strategy early and this is so much about track position here and how you’re running through your tires — whether you’re taking two or four. We just got ourselves out of sequence and could never make it back up again.”