Matt Kenseth's best is yet to come; plus a new No. 1
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Matt Kenseth walked through pit road unnoticed, slipping by fans who were focused on Jimmie Johnson's victory celebration at Martinsville Speedway.
It can be easy to overlook Kenseth, but don't be fooled. Although he finished 14th after a late pit call backfired, he was hard to ignore for much of the STP Gas Booster 500, leading more laps on Sunday than he had in 26 previous races there combined.
That's been his season. The former champion has had one of the best cars in most of the races so far, but he hasn't always had the finishes to show for it. Kenseth easily could have more than just his victory at Las Vegas and be higher than 10th in the points.
With the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heading to Texas and Kansas during the next two weeks, expect Kenseth to be at the front. He's scored five consecutive top-five finishes, including a win, at Texas and has three consecutive top-fives at Kansas, including a win last fall.
While Kenseth's offseason move to Joe Gibbs Racing created high expectations, the way he's performed, it's as if he's worked with crew chief Jason Ratcliff for years instead of six races.
Kenseth, though, isn't surprised by his promising start.
"I just had a great feeling about this team as soon as I did this,'' he said. "Actually, I thought we would have more better results by now, I really did. It's fun to drive cars that are really fast.''
He led the most laps in the Daytona 500 before an engine failure sent him out of the race. He was running second at Bristol when leader Jeff Gordon blew a tire in front of him and sailed into his lane, causing Kenseth to ram him, ending his day. Then came Sunday when he led 96 laps -- he'd led only 73 there combined -- but a decision to pit late didn't lure more cars to follow, so he started deep in the field and couldn't recover in the few remaining laps.
Even with that disappointing finish, it's easy for Kenseth and his team to feel good about what they can do.
"It's really encouraging to have cars that fast,'' he said. "I always feel like I'm just an awful driver here and (Sunday) I could actually pass the leader a couple of times and that was fun.''
So fun he joked about it on his radio. When he scooted by Johnson once, Kenseth radioed his spotter: "Tell (Johnson's spotter) sorry about that. I've never taken the lead under green at Martinsville before.''
Actually, he had, but Kenseth's point was clear and he was having fun.
He wasn't the only one who enjoyed the show. Teammate Denny Hamlin, sidelined by an L1 compression fracture of the spine that he suffered two weeks ago in a crash at Auto Club Speedway, is impressed by what he's seen this year from Kenseth's team.
"They've had a top-five car every single week.'' Hamlin said. "I think it's showing, really, what that 20 team is all about. I knew (while) working with Jason in the Nationwide series that he was a really good crew chief. They haven't gotten the results these last couple of years that they really deserved. Now that Matt is in that car, he's showing how good he really is.''
Or how good the team is?
Kenseth became the focus of banter through the media between Hamlin and Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus.
After the race, Hamlin said with a sly smile that Johnson had gotten a "layup'' in winning at Martinsville because Hamlin, who also excels at the track, couldn't compete.
Told of Hamlin's line, Knaus responded by bringing Kenseth into the conversation, saying: "I think it's pretty obvious that it's not Denny, it's the Gibbs cars. If you look at Matt Kenseth, he couldn't get out of his own way when he was in a Roush car here, and he went out there (Sunday) and was making it happen. I think it's probably more car than driver here for that team.''
Either way, Kenseth has been a factor this season. Ratcliff says the team's worst race this season was last month at Auto Club Speedway when Kenseth finished seventh.
"We wished we could have finished Daytona and finished Bristol and seen how it would have shaken out,'' Ratcliff said. "It would be stupid of us to say, "Well, yeah, we would have won those races,' because the competition is so stiff, but it would have been fun to finish it out and see where we stacked out.
"We've been to every style race track on the circuit other than a road course up to this point, and been competitive and that's something that we can build on. We've just got to keep it going.''
For as good as they've run, Kenseth and Ratcliff are still learning about each other and should continue to get better.
So, while the focus is on Johnson after his second victory of the season, or Brad Keselowski for his fifth finish of sixth or better this year, or Dale Earnhardt Jr., despite his stumble at Martinsville, or even teammate Kyle Busch, who has scored four consecutive top-five finishes, don't forget about Kenseth.
1. Kyle Busch (2nd previously) -- His fifth-place finish at Martinsville marked his fourth consecutive top-five. Previously, he was fourth at Las Vegas, second at Bristol, and he won at Auto Club Speedway.
2. Brad Keselowski (3rd) -- He keeps scoring strong finishes. Although he struggled at times at Martinsville and was penalized for a pit-road infraction, he scored a sixth-place finish. He's finished sixth or better in five of the first six races of the season.
3. Jimmie Johnson (6th) -- It's no surprise that he won at Martinsville. It was his eighth victory there. He led 346 of the 500 laps -- more than he's led in any other race at this track. Also it marked the third time that he's won from the pole there.
4. Kasey Kahne (4th) -- Another strong run for this team. The move to Hendrick has really helped him at Martinsville, where his fourth-place finish was his second consecutive top-five there. Before them, he'd gone 11 races without a top-10 at Martinsville.
5. Matt Kenseth (5th) -- His 14th at Martinsville masked one of his best runs at a track where he's often struggled. This team has been fast just about everywhere.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1st) -- His handling faltered late and he finished two laps down at one of his best tracks. Disappointing day for this team -- the first time it has finished outside the top 10 this season.
7. Clint Bowyer (unranked) -- His up-and-down season continues. He finished second at Martinsville for his third top-10 of the year, but he's also placed outside the top 25 twice.
8. Greg Biffle (9th) -- Martinsville has often been a weak spot for him, but he finished ninth on Sunday, his second-best finish at the track. His career-best there is a seventh in Octpber 2007.
9. Jeff Gordon (unranked) -- Third-place finish is his second top-10 of the season. The key for this team will be the coming races at Texas and Kansas. Gordon and company have been off a bit on bigger tracks.
10. Carl Edwards (8th) -- Placed 15th on Sunday. His career average at Martinsville entering the race was 16.1, and he remains in my top 10 on the strength of his win and three top-fives in the first six races of the season.