Despite being in a fairly safe spot heading into Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Matt Kenseth doesn’t believe a berth in the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup is a foregone conclusion for his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team.
And if Kenseth makes the Chase, the veteran driver doesn’t believe he has a particularly good shot to snare his second Sprint Cup title and first as a member of Joe Gibbs Racing.
At least Kenseth is feeling fairly upbeat about Saturday night’s race at Bristol, one of seven that he won last year.
"I enjoy coming to Bristol," said Kenseth, who has three victories in 29 starts at the fast, high-banked oval. "Anything can happen. The last few races we’ve had really fast cars here. We were fortunate enough to win one of them and wrecked in the other two. So I’m hoping this is our turn to win one, because it’s been every other race. I like racing here."
Crew chief Jason Ratcliff shares his driver’s optimism about this weekend’s proceedings on the popular Tennessee short track.
"We know that Bristol is a track that Matt does well at and has had success at," Ratcliff said. "Ever since Matt has been with the No. 20 team, it’s just been one of the tracks where we’ve raced pretty well at, so we usually beat ourselves up in practice wanting to be at the top of the sheet. It’s always a fun race under the lights, and I’m anticipating a good race for us Saturday night."
If Kenseth can repeat last August’s success in Thunder Valley, he will join the 12 drivers who are locked into the Chase by virtue of winning one or more races this season.
Even if Kenseth doesn’t go to Victory Lane in any of the final three regular-season races, the second-year JGR driver is seemingly in a good position to qualify for the 10-race playoff based on his current position in the standings.
Kenseth is first in points among drivers without a win, and has a substantial cushion over the next three winless drivers — Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle — who also would make the Chase if the 16-driver championship field was set today.
Kenseth, however, has experienced the unexpected enough in his lengthy career not to take his Chase entry for granted.
"I never feel like you’re a lock for anything until you’re really a lock for something," the 2003 Sprint Cup champion said. "Until it’s mathematically impossible to be out, I never feel like you’re in. We want to win. 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. But like I said, we’re doing everything we can do. We’re doing the best we can. It’s been an interesting year."
Last season — Kenseth’s first at JGR after 13 years at Roush Fenway Racing — Kenseth won seven races en route to a second-place finish behind Jimmie Johnson in the final standings.
As championship runners-up often do, however, Kenseth has found the going considerably tougher in the season immediately after being the sport’s bridesmaid.
The most visible proof of the difference between Kenseth’s 2013 and 20014 is not in his place in the standings — he’s a solid fifth — but the fact that he has yet to find Victory Lane.
"Just been caught in a lot of stuff that’s really cost us a lot of good finishes, and even though they’re not all DNFs on the stat sheet, there’s a lot of races that we weren’t running competitively at the end because we’ve been in accidents," Kenseth said. "So to still be where we are in the points I guess is a good thing with all of the trouble that we’ve had, but certainly we want to go win, but you can only do the best you can.
"You can’t force them. You go out and race as hard as you can every week and try to get the best result you can, and hopefully you’ll get some wins."
Even though Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole has shown signs of finding more speed in its cars over the past few weeks, Kenseth isn’t convinced that he or teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin are ready to make a serious run at the title.
"My confidence isn’t nearly as high with how we’re running at this point this year (compared to) last year," Kenseth said. "I have a ton of confidence in my team and organization, and my pit crew has been doing better than ever. But we’ve just been off on speed a little bit, so certainly with only three weeks to go to the Chase, even if all three of us get in, we realize that we all have to be running better to have a legitimate shot at winning it, and we’re all working really hard at that."
VIDEO: Matt Kenseth involved in wreck with Danica Patrick in spring Bristol race