The Inside Line: Kenseth emerging as the Chase favorite
By Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Matt Kenseth has been living the dream in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, but after winning Sunday's race at Chicagoland Speedway, he has a second Sprint Cup Series championship in mind.
Kenseth, the 2003 Sprint Cup champion, passed his teammate, Kyle Busch, for the lead after a restart with 23 laps to go and then went on to score his series-leading and career-high sixth win of the season. The race had been delayed more than six hours due to rain.
Kenseth also increased his points lead to eight over Busch, who moved up to second in the Chase standings with his runner-up finish. Jimmie Johnson's fifth-place run has him 11 points behind the leader.
Prior to his arrival at JGR for the 2013 season, Kenseth spent his first 13 years in NASCAR's top series with Roush Fenway Racing. He won 24 races with Roush, including five in 2002.
"It's been a record season for me," Kenseth said. "I'm obviously the same guy, the same driver. It's obviously about Joe Gibbs Racing, the guys working there, (crew chief) Jason (Ratcliff) and the group and everything."
Kenseth, who grew up roughly 120 miles north of Chicagoland in Cambridge, Wis., entered the playoffs as the top seed. It's the fifth time in his career that he's won a Chase race. He also won at Chicagoland for the first time.
"I've always wanted to win here in Chicago," he said. "It's only a couple of hours from where I grew up in Wisconsin. So, it feels great to finally get the win here."
Kenseth's win comes after NASCAR's integrity has been questioned in wake of the controversial finish in the Sept. 7 regular-season-ending race at Richmond. The sanctioning body spent several days investigating three teams in their attempts to manipulate the outcome of the event there. One week ago, Ryan Newman was placed in the Chase and Martin Truex Jr. dropped due to severe penalties assessed to Michael Waltrip Racing. Then on Friday, NASCAR added Jeff Gordon as a 13th member of the Chase as a result of an unprecedented and extraordinary set of circumstances that unfolded at Richmond.
"I wasn't involved in any of it, so I kind of enjoyed that," Kenseth said. "It seemed like we came in as the first seed, which was really great, but we were in the shadows all week with everything going on. I was all right with that. We had a lot of space to work on our cars, talk about things, go do all that.
"I don't know about the rest of it. I think it's been talked about so much all week. I think the important thing is it's behind us. I think everybody is pretty clear what everybody expects, the things that we should do and not do, although a lot of it is pretty obvious anyway."
Though the Richmond controversy continues to be topic of debate, the Chase now moves on to New Hampshire this coming weekend. Kenseth has yet to win there.
Since NASCAR began its playoff format for Sprint Cup in 2004, Kenseth's best finish in the Chase is second. He finished the 2006 season 56 points behind champion Johnson.
If history repeats itself, Kenseth will win the championship after taking the checkered flag at Chicagoland. This 1.5-mile racetrack has been the first on the 10-race Chase schedule for the third consecutive year. Tony Stewart won at Chicagoland and then claimed the title in 2011. Brad Keselowski accomplished the feat last year.
"I'd rather have you tell me that than whoever wins this (race) finishes dead last (in the Chase)," Kenseth said. "You want to enjoy this, then go to work on New Hampshire, try to go there and get as many points as you can. Just kind of take it one week at a time."
Chicagoland was the first of five mile-and-a-half tracks in the Chase. Kansas (Oct. 6), Charlotte (Oct. 12), Texas (Nov. 3) and Homestead (Nov. 17) are the others. Four of Kenseth's six wins this season have occurred at mile-and-a- halfs.
"I think our mile-and-a-half program has been good," Ratcliff said. "I think our program has been pretty solid all the way around. I'm glad we have a few more mile-and-a-half tracks in the Chase. We're excited about that."
Now in its seventh year of Sprint Cup competition, Toyota has yet to have one of its drivers win the championship. Could Kenseth be the first one to do it? We'll find out on Nov. 17 in Homestead, Fla.