By Matt Weaver – Matt Kenseth knows the potential pitfalls of a slow start in the Chase for the Championship.
After all, it was almost a year ago that Kenseth won his first of two races in the playoffs but was an afterthought because of three consecutive finishes outside of the top-10 to open the format. He was forced to play catch-up and couldn’t, finishing seventh in his final season for Roush Fenway Racing.
This season has seen the 2003 champion perform flawlessly to open the Chase, kicking off his latest playoff runs with two straight victories at Chicagoland and New Hampshire Motor Speedway. As a result, he’s built a massive championship lead — 13 over Kyle Busch and 18 over Jimmie Johnson.
Everyone else is at least 35 points out of the top spot and Kenseth wouldn’t have it any other way.
“As I’ve watched the Chase through all these years, there are always guys that get far enough behind where they’re basically eliminated, and I was one of them last year,” Kenseth said on Friday at Dover International Speedway. “And after we got out of Dover, we knew that it would take a small miracle to get back in it.
“I think that happens every year.”
This year, that role happens to be inhabited by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne who have had miserable starts to the Chase and inhabit the final three spots in the standings. Kenseth has now experienced both ends of the spectrum in consecutive seasons and is relishing the opportunity to control his own destiny over the final eight weeks of the season.
“I’d like to be out front as far as you could possibly get out there,” Kenseth added. “I think that’s the best place to be. You hope to have a lead and you hope to build on that lead and I think when you get further behind that’s kind of when you maybe try things you wouldn’t typically try and you get out of your comfort zone…
“I think you’re more open to making mistakes or things going wrong [in that scenario] so I’m obviously happy with the start we’ve had and hopefully we can build on that.”
At second place in the standings, Busch has done everything in his power to match his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, finishing second in both races. As a result, he says he’s not paying attention to how the standings are playing out this early.
“I really don’t care right now, ” Busch said. “We’re just with the mindset to continue on the path that we have all year long and that’s to continue to run consistently and to get good finishes and if we can win we try to win. But, right now it’s going to be the guys who are upfront each and every week — and certainly it may take a couple wins in this deal to win it — but I’ve also felt all along that if you finish second every single Chase race then you could have a really good shot at winning a championship that way.”
It is certainly easier to feel that when you’re Busch and you’ve had that remarkably fast start. But to those in the middle of the pack like Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, winning is going to have to be a part of the recipe — that and a drop-off in performance and/or bad luck by the front-runners.
Like the championship leaders, Biffle says it is too early to crown anyone the favorite after two races.
“The Chase, from what I understand is made up of 10 races,” Biffle said on Friday with a hint of snark. “And to be two races into the Chase and say it’s a three-man race already — to me — seems silly.”
And to a degree, Biffle is right.
There is a lot of racing left but rolling off good finishes won’t be enough for second-place on back. With Kenseth so far out in front, a good finish won’t be enough if Kenseth maintains a near top-10 average. To those fourth-place on back, nearly a full race separate the two groups so it is going to take wins and maybe two just to get even.
But Biffle believes that anyone in the Chase from fourth on back is certainly capable of making the grade.
“I wouldn’t count out Carl Edwards or any of those other guys that are right there in the hunt,” Biffle said of his rivals. “Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick — I wouldn’t be counting those guys out yet is all I’m trying to say. And I’m not just saying it just because of our case either.”
Just as Kenseth opened last year’s Chase with three bad finishes, the same result could befall him at any of the remaining eight events this year and that would change everything.