NASCAR Sprint Cup: Matt Kenseth poised to end drought

2014 FedEx 400 | Dover International Speedway | Sunday, 1 p.m. (FOX)

jutter@charlotteobserver.comMay 29, 2014 

It took a stop at a track at which Jimmie Johnson has enjoyed a great deal of success in his career to earn his first victory of the 2014 season.

Does Matt Kenseth have next?

Johnson’s victory last weekend in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway gave him seven victories at the track.

Kenseth, who led the Sprint Cup Series with seven wins last season, is winless this season, but he, too, has a chance to end the drought at a track where he has found much success, Dover (Del.) International Speedway, site of Sunday’s FedEx 400.

“It is one of those tracks that is not only challenging to race other cars and figure out how to pass them, but it always challenges you every single lap, even when you are by yourself,” Kenseth said.

“It is one of those tracks you can’t let your guard down.”

Dover was the site of Kenseth’s first Cup start in 1998 when he finished sixth as a last-minute substitute driver for Bill Elliott, whose father, George Elliott, had passed away that week. In fact, Kenseth was so last-minute he had no fire suit matching the McDonald’s-sponsored car Elliott drove at the time.

Kenseth ended up borrowing a suit from one of Elliott’s crewmen and his sixth-place finish was the best result for a driver making his first Cup start since 1980 when Rusty Wallace finished second in his debut at Atlanta.

Dover has been kind to Kenseth ever since.

He has two victories at the track and in 30 career starts, including 19 top-10 finishes – more than any other track. In his previous 12 races at the 1-mile concrete oval, Kenseth has finished seventh or better nine times.

Kenseth got off to a roaring start in his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing last season and ended up in a down-to-the-wire battle with Johnson for the series championship.

Like Johnson’s until last weekend, Kenseth’s absence from Victory Lane this season has been noticeable in large part because of the abundance of wins he collected in 2013.

Kenseth was in the running to win last Sunday’s 600 but ended up finishing a season-best third.

“I feel like we’re gaining on it,” he said. “I thought all things being equal and nobody having trouble (at Charlotte) that we had at least a fifth-place car – 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.”

Perhaps the next step in Kenseth’s No. 20 team will come at Dover.

“I know that Dover is a track that Matt is quite fond of, and it’s one of my most favorite tracks on the circuit other than Darlington,” said Kenseth’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff. “I just like Dover because it’s unique and it reminds me of a Bristol on steroids.

“Things that apply at the mile-and-a-half tracks kind of apply at Dover, but then you also have to throw some short-track characteristics into your car as well. It’s fast, it’s fun and it’s different.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

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