Kenseth aims to tame key win

The Associated PressApril 11, 2014 

NASCAR Darlington Nationwide Auto Racing

Kyle Busch holds the trophy in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Nationwide series auto race at Darlington Raceway last year.

MIC SMITH — AP

  • More information

    Where: Darlington Raceway | When: Saturday, 6:30 p.m. | TV: FOX | Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Channel 90

  • THAT WINNING FEELING

    The NASCAR Sprint Cup season started with seven winners in the first seven races. With winners automatically qualifying for the Chase, several possibilities lurk to become the eighth winner at Darlington Raceway on Saturday night. A couple winners, however, might break that streak of first-timers.

    Who could be No. 8?

    •  Points leader Jeff Gordon has finished no worse than 13th this season and has eight top 10s in the past decade of races at Darlington. He knows this track where he’s won seven times is a place that can land him in the Chase.

    •  Denny Hamlin is 13th in the standings after missing a race with an eye injury. But his past four finishes at Darlington – 1-6-2-2 – suggest he could get his groove back in South Carolina.

    •  Last year’s Darlington winner, Matt Kenseth, comes to the Pee Dee with three straight top 10s this season. He drives one of those Gibbs cars (see Hamlin) that have performed so well at the egg-shapetrack in recent years.

    •  Shocked that six-time series champ Jimmie Johnson is not among this year’s winners? Surprised about him posting three finishes of 19th or worse in his past four races? Darlington might be the cure for the No. 48 car. Johnson has finished seventh or better at the track in nine of the past 12 years – including a 2012 win.

    Who might end the streak?

    •  Maybe the Gibbs folks should tell Kyle Busch he’s in Nationwide race. The winner at California this year has taken the checkered flag at two of the past three races at Darlington in the series below the Sprint Cup. He’s behind Hamlin for best average finish in top series races at the track since 2010 and won in 2008.

    •  Carl Edwards gives Ford a chance. The winner at Bristol has five top-7s in the Palmetto State over the past seven years, including a pair of seventh-place finishes in the past two races. That’s a lot of lucky 7s for the 99 car.

    Andrew Shain, ashain@thetstate.com

— Matt Kenseth hopes to get his season going and lock up a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup at Darlington Raceway.

Kenseth came to the Southern 500 last May one of Sprint Cup’s hottest drivers, winning twice in his first season driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. This time, Kenseth comes in winless through seven races under the new NASCAR format where a victory pretty much ensures a driver a spot in the 16-team playoffs.

“I’ve never been at a race I didn’t want to win,” Kenseth said. “We show up every week with our best stuff trying to figure out how to sit on the pole and win the race. That’s never really changed since I started racing.”

Kenseth and his JGR team got it done a season ago, taking the Southern 500 and enhancing the driver’s fast start with his new program. Kenseth hopes that past success gives him a leg up for Saturday night’s race – and gets him locked into the playoffs.

Kenseth’s not the only regular winner without a trip to Victory Lane this year. Six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson hasn’t won. Neither has current points leader Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle or Tony Stewart with 19 races remaining before the playoffs begin.

Kenseth said he and his team aren’t panicking with plenty of time left to claim a victory or get in on points – still a possibility in Kenseth’s mind despite no multiple winners this season.

But Kenseth doesn’t spend any more or less time considering his placing after each race. That might change, he says, if he gets to late summer without a victory and trying to qualify for the playoffs on points.

“History suggests that there are going to be a few guys added by points who didn’t win,” he said. “Certainly, if that’s the case, the point standings are very important.”

Kenseth has long handled the vagaries of NASCAR’s old point systems that sometimes put more importance on consistency than victories. In 2002, Kenseth won five races but was well behind series champion Stewart in the final standings. The next season, Kenseth took a steadier approach, built a large points lead by the summer and held on for his NASCAR championship.

But Kenseth’s not sure how this will shake out the next five months.

“Are we going to have 10 winners? Are we going to have 20 winners?” he said. “There’s no telling how important points are going to be.”

Kyle Busch earned his playoff spot with a win last month in the Auto Club 400 at Fontana, Calif. He’s not sure how important it was to win so early, only that it gave his team relief about where they’ll be come September.

“It certainly takes a load off your shoulders and just kind of relieves a little bit, puts another breath in your sails,” Busch said. “There are going to be guys who get in, I believe without wins. It sort of guarantees your spot, so now it gives you more opportunity to experiment.”

Busch expects another strong outing from he and his teammates Kenseth and Denny Hamlin this week. And maybe they’ll be the next to earn a playoff spot at the “Lady in Black.”

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