There’s a large black cloud looming on the horizon for Matt Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing team. It is not, however, the 2.66-mile superspeedway simply known as ‘Dega.
As the Sprint Cup Series heads to Talladega this weekend, Kenseth will do so – for now at least – with crew chief Jason Ratcliff and look for their third win of the season. Next Wednesday their appeal will be heard by NASCAR for infractions found with the engine following a win at Kansas two weeks ago. Should they lose, Ratcliff will be suspended for six NSCS races and the 50 driver and owner points will remain stripped.
That pending disappointment though, is in the future. For now, what lies ahead is a wildcard race that Kenseth is eagerly looking forward to. Pretty ironic for a driver who once felt he never knew what to do on restrictor plate tracks.
“I used to dread it. Last year I was really excited about going there because we were just running so great at the plate races, and I’m excited to go this weekend,” said Kenseth on Tuesday during the weekly NASCAR teleconference.
“We had a great Daytona 500 until we dropped out of the race, but we had a really competitive car. We were leading the race when we broke.”
Competitive is an understatement. In his first official race with JGR he picked up where he left off in 2012 – by dominating the Great American Race. Before his engine expired, while as mentioned leading, he had led 86 of the 149 laps he completed. Teammate Kyle Busch’s engine expired just a number of laps later.
It would have been Kenseth’s third Daytona 500 win and third plate win in five races. After winning the season opening race last year with Roush Fenway, he finished third at both the spring Talladega race and the summer Daytona event before winning the Chase Talladega race last fall. Going two for four thereby giving himself an average finish of 2.0 on the restrictor plate tracks.
“Yeah, that was a pretty gawdy number, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to do that again,” noted Kenseth. “It’s the same approach, you show up at the track, you go through to lead laps, put yourself in position to win.
“Last year, we had really fast cars at the superspeedways and this year at Daytona we did as well. I think when we had our mechanical problems, we had JGR cars first second and third and led some laps there and had ourselves in a good spot.
“So hopefully going back to Talladega, our cars will have some speed in them again and we’ll be able to make it 500 miles and hopefully be up front and be in that mix.”
Freak breaks have bitten Kenseth more than once this season, resulting in finishes that haven’t been indicative of his performances. But Kenseth remains pleased with the team’s progress and early success together. While there are always areas to improve, he isn’t shy from saying how “really, really good” the group of guys on the No. 20 team are.
Now moving forward, even with the uncertainty hanging ahead, the focus is on winning Talladega. There’s not much that Kenseth feels will carry over from 2012 in terms of his success, but he is a believer in momentum. With his recent success not only at Daytona but through the first nine races, there’s not much more that he needs, except maybe a different strategy.
“I would expect to run a very limited amount of laps,” Kenseth said about the upcoming Talladega weekend and practice in particular. “I don’t think that handling is going to be a big deal. I don’t think we have a lot of stuff to work through. I think that you have your basic Daytona package, being an impound race, there’s not really anything to work out, much to work on in qualifying other than how much taping you put on the grille.”
Once the green flag falls in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 however, Kenseth will go to work on another plate win. As well as re-earning the Chase bonus points that were taken away from the Kansas win. And should the 20 team follow through on Kenseth’s practice prediction and the engine remains together, it would be foolish to overlook the possibility.
“I think that Talladega, especially being impound, is one of those rare races, you can almost do the thing in a day; you could tack everybody, qualify them, line them up and race them,” he said.
“I don’t think you’ll see a lot of cars out there doing a whole lot of practice I think most of your practice is actually during that 500 miles, figuring out where you can pass, where you can’t, trying to figure out your moves so you have it for the end of the race. Nobody has told me any different, but I wouldn’t anticipate a whole bunch of laps in practice.”