With Jimmie Johnson’s triumph in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, 10 different drivers have gone to Victory Lane in the first 12 races of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
Who will be next?
Based on recent trends — and his record at Dover International Speedway, site of Sunday’s FedEx 400 — Matt Kenseth has all the looks of a promising pick.
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The performance of Kenseth, last season’s championship runner-up, has been one of the real mysteries of 2014.
Despite failing to scratch in the season’s first dozen races after posting a career-high seven victories in 2013, the second-year Joe Gibbs Racing driver has been his typical quiet, consistent self as evidenced by sitting second in the standings on the strength of nine top-10 finishes.
In Sunday’s 600-miler, Kenseth passed Jeff Gordon for the lead on the race’s final restart with 17 laps to go but slipped to third in the final rundown after being unable to hold off Johnson and Kevin Harvick.
In 30 Sprint Cup starts at Dover, Kenseth has two wins, 13 top fives, 19 top-10 finishes and two poles, so there is certainly reason for optimism in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team camp heading to The Monster Mile.
"Dover is one of my favorite tracks," crew chief Jason Ratcliff said. "I think it’s going to be a lot different there this weekend with the new rules package we have this season. It’s one of the tracks that I know we circled on the calendar when the year started thinking about all the different things that 2014 brought to the sport. I think Dover is going to be a place where we’re going to need to tackle it a little bit different than we have in the past because I feel that this new rules package is going to change a lot.
"Speeds have been higher almost everywhere we’ve been this season and I think we’ll see a huge change as well this weekend. I feel like we had a good handle on things last year at Dover, but with everything new, we’ll need to start over and see how we stack up."
Kenseth shares his crew chief’s sentiment that Sunday’s first Dover race with the 2014 rules package will bring new challenges.
"I think that things are definitely going to be different this weekend at Dover," the 2003 Sprint Cup champion said. "We’ve seen track records being set, the pace of the races has been extremely fast, and tires have been a concern since we’ve had them overloaded. It’s just going to be a lot different with the setups and the new aero package we have in place. I think that all the cars are going to be so incredibly fast that it’s going to be even harder to pass and track position will be even more important than ever at Dover.
"I think that keeping the right-front tires from blowing out is also going to be important this weekend, so we’ll see how all these new changes come into play, but Dover is my favorite track and I’m excited to get there."
Kenseth’s excitement is certainly justified after leading four times for a total of 33 laps at Charlotte, where he notched his best finish of the season.
"You hate it when your team puts you in front of them and gives you the opportunity to win and you don’t win," the Wisconsin native said. "We got away there and I felt pretty good about it and the 48 (Johnson) cleared the 24 (Gordon) and I still felt good about it, but we were a little bit tight and the 48 just has so much more speed than we did tonight and he started mowing me down and the harder I tried the tighter it made my car. I just couldn’t hold on."
After what some observers might consider a slow start to 2014, especially in light of his outstanding 2013, Kenseth believes his Toyotas are improving. And a trip to Victory Lane could be next.
"I feel like we’re gaining on it," he said. "I thought all things being equal and nobody having trouble that we had at least a fifth-place car (in the Coca-Cola 600), so we’re gaining on it. We’re not where we were last year yet, but I feel like certainly we’re gaining on it. Typically, Charlotte has been one of our best places and I was hoping we were going to be able to sneak up on a win there. We are just a little bit off and just need to get it a little better somehow."