Yes, Jimmie Johnson has a considerable margin over the field right now (44pts) but Matt Kenseth who sits 3rd in the standings has put up performances as good as if not better than the 5-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. Through just 11 races, he’s led 781 laps which is already more than 9 of his 13 previous Cup seasons including his 2003 championship run. Kenseth’s three victories already matches his 2011 and 2012 totals and don’t be surprised if he wins well over five races before 2013 is finished. It’s astonishing that Matt has competed for the win and led laps in most of the races so far this year and with a brand new team; that’s very impressive. They’ve ran well at short tracks, plate tracks, cookie cutters and one milers proving that they will be a threat everywhere and anywhere they go this year.
In the Daytona 500, no one could touch his No.20 that led the pack for nearly half the race and it looked like he would win his 3rd Daytona 500 with little challenge from behind. That is before his TRD engine let go with about 50 laps remaining. He ran inside the top 10 the whole race at Phoenix, won Las Vegas, crashed out of Bristol while running 2nd and after leading 85 laps, finished in the top 10 again at Cali, led a career high 96 laps at Martinsville, finished 12th at Texas, led over half the race at Kansas in route to the victory, finished 7th at Richmond after leading 140 laps, dominated 3/4ths of the Talladega event before being shuffled back to 8th in the closing laps, and now he is a winner of the Southern 500. We can’t forget about how he’s been qualifying either. Matt holds a lot of records for being the deepest starting position of a race winner and he isn’t known for winning very many poles. So far this season, he’s started inside the top 10 seven times and has won the pole twice.
On top of all their on track dominance, the team is also winning off the track. NASCAR issued one of the largest penalties in history to Kenseth and JGR when a connecting rod from their winning Kansas engine was found to be 2.7 grams underweight. They stripped them of 50 championship points, fined them $200,000, suspended crew chief Jason Ratcliff for six races, suspended Joe Gibbs’ owner’s license, took the chase bonus points that he would get for the win away and refused to count the pole towards the 2014 Sprint Unlimited eligibility. Well, the team made a statement the following race winning the Richmond pole and then focused on appealing the harsh punishment. The nearly unprecedented penalty was reduced significantly by the panel and NASCAR was very displeased with the outcome.
“While we are disappointed in today’s outcome, we stand firmly behind our inspection process. In violations such as these, we have no other recourse in the reinforcement process than to penalize the team owner and team members. That’s how our system works…..You’re not going to agree with everything, and today is one we disagree with. We feel like when we write a penalty and write a rules violation, there needs to be something behind it.” -Kerry Tharp
JGR took on NASCAR and won, a rare accomplishment for anyone in the garage area and something not many can say. They came to Darlington just a few days later with their chests pumped out and a chip on their shoulder ready to take on the notorious Lady in Black. The win marks Kenseth’s first in the Southern 500 and was helped by some bad luck biting teammate Kyle Busch in the closing laps but it was nonetheless a monumental victory for the team. With their confidence at an all-time high and some bad fast racing machines underneath a championship caliber driver, Matt Kenseth and team looks to set the world on fire as NASCAR races into the summer months.
With the way they’ve been running, I would not discount Kenseth getting to 10 wins by the end of 2013. He has always been a formidable opponent and his Achilles heel (qualifying) no longer exists since he’s joined Joe Gibbs Racing. He’s amazingly consistent, can close the deal, is now able to start up front and does it with little drama or controversy. That last quality hasn’t been seen with a JGR driver since the days of Bobby Labonte. This already strong team has bolstered their lineup with one of the best drivers in the garage and I think this unshakable team will be the ones to beat as the season progresses. Right now, we have some pretenders mixed in with the real contenders but the cream will rise to the top as it always does. By the time we reach the season finale at Homestead, there will only be a few left standing to fight tooth and nail for the Cup. I can assure you that Matt Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing will be one of those few men left and in fact, they will probably be the one that everybody is chasing.