By Jonathan Baum, Yahoo Sports
August 27, 2006
It was 2003, the final year of the pre-Chase era, and Matt Kenseth almost made the championship battle a runaway.
Sure, a somewhat uninspired stretch run made it a little interesting, and Jimmie Johnson ended up just 90 points short of a title, but it was only Kenseth's DNF in the season finale that made the championship race seem even that close.
No, this one was a borderline laugher.
The battle for the 2003 Cup championship was so allegedly ho-hum, in fact, that many credit (or blame, depending on one's point of view) it for spurring NASCAR to create the Chase format.
But that doesn't mean the rest of the field really is in the same stratosphere as the two men who occupy the top two spots in the standings.
With Kenseth's win in Saturday night's Sharpie 500 at Bristol – his second Cup win in as many weeks, his second NASCAR win in as many nights and his second Bristol night race win in as many years – he and Johnson now each have four wins. Kasey Kahne, who slumped his way out of the top 10 this summer, also has four wins, but no other driver has more than two this season.
Kenseth and Johnson also are the only drivers to lead the points this year, with Johnson fronting the charge an overwhelming majority of the time. And really, when it comes to those two dominating, the writing was on the wall early. Johnson won the season-opening Daytona 500, Kenseth won the next week at California (Johnson was second) and Johnson won the following week at Las Vegas (Kenseth was second).
Get the picture?
Between the two, Johnson was the one who made the bigger splash this season – at least for a while. Not only did he win the Daytona 500 and at Vegas, but he also scored a big win at Talladega, a big-money win in the All-Star Challenge, and a flat-out huge win at the Brickyard.
But the Brickyard also marked the start of Kenseth's time to shine, as arguably no other team has been better than Kenseth's No. 17 since then. His recent finishes? Second at the Brickyard, 21st at Watkins Glen on the road course (of which there are none in the Chase), first at Michigan, first at Bristol. And there was that Busch win Friday night, too.
Kenseth has won bunches of races before. Back in 2002, he scored five wins, accounting for just over a third of his career total of Cup victories. But that season, Kenseth didn't have the consistency necessary to compete for a title.
The following year, he won but once – and early in the season at that, a triumph at Las Vegas in the season's third race. But the consistency was there in the form of 25 top-10s, and the championship was his.
Sure, nothing is set in stone now with the Chase format, as any driver who qualifies has a good shot at the championship. But there is reason for eight of the other nine Chase drivers (Johnson likely excepted) to worry: this year, Kenseth is both a winner and consistent.
Not only is he tied for the series lead with four victories, but he also has notched 13 top-fives (easily tops among Cup drivers) and 14 top-10s (only Johnson has more). Kenseth now sits just seven points behind Johnson in the standings, as both drivers officially clinched Chase berths Saturday night.
Kenseth has been as good as or better than anyone all year. And with his recent hot streak – plus with California coming next week and Richmond, where he has won before, the week following – there will be no limping into the Chase for the Wisconsin native.
"The guys [on my team] are operating at a championship level," Kenseth said after his win Saturday. "If we can go into the Chase like this, we'll have a shot at the championship."
His recent performance backs him up. And although team owner Jack Roush said last weekend he expects this team to peak at the season finale in Homestead – crew chief Robbie Reiser echoed that sentiment after Saturday's win, saying "We're just working up to our potential here" – Kenseth and Co. really can't perform much better than they are now.
"We're happy we made the chase," said Kenseth, who believes his cars are even better than they were in '03, giving his team a "great opportunity" to score another title. "That was the first goal, but now that we've realized that goal, my goal anyway is to be leading the points going into the chase and try to win us a second championship. We're performing at a championship level and I think anything less than that would be a little bit of a disappointment for all of us."
While Kenseth and Johnson are secure in the Chase, a plethora of other drivers also have run exceptionally well over the past several weeks to keep themselves in contention. Kenseth is on a roll, but he's not the only one. There are the Harvicks, the Gordons, the Earnhardt Jrs., the Hamlins, etc., who have been performing very well down the pre-Chase stretch.
And while Kenseth and Johnson might be the title favorites, again, almost any driver making the Chase will have a legitimate shot to win it.
This much Kenseth knows.
But he also knows that his team is up to the challenge.
"There are a lot of teams running awful good right now, but it sure feels good to win [at Bristol]," he said. "It's an unbelievable feeling."
For him, maybe.
But not for the other nine drivers who will face him in the Chase, those who hope 2006 doesn't turn into another Kenseth runaway.
And if that does happen, does Kenseth expect another championship format change to follow?
Kenseth laughed, and then answered.
"I'm not even going there."
Jonathan Baum is an editor at Yahoo! Sports. Send Jonathan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Sunday, Aug 27, 2006 3:11 am, EDT