With the final events of the Sprint Cup regular season ticking down, all eyes are on the wild-card standings. Every weekend brings with it a change in the drivers who hold those final two playoff spots, while every race brings another opportunity for a competitor to score a victory that will thrust him directly into the mix. As much fun as all that is to watch, though, right now the most telling number in the potential Chase field isn't at the bottom of the standings but at the top.
Matt Kenseth currently holds a 25-point advantage over everyone else, the largest cushion enjoyed by a series leader this year to date. Yes, that lead likely will evaporate late on the evening of Sept. 9, thanks to a Chase format that resets the standings among the 12 championship contenders, and Kenseth will need a few more victories at least to put him within range of the top spot. But that's still a nice little margin under this current, more simplified points system, and it is further evidence that despite his looming change of address, the Roush Fenway driver likely isn't going away.
Understandably, there were plenty of concerned folks two weeks ago when news surfaced of Kenseth's departure from the Roush organization at the conclusion of this season, plenty of people wondering how the points leader could possibly keep it going given that he'd be departing perhaps the tightest-knit program in the garage area at the end of the year. Since then, Kenseth has kept on being Kenseth, posting a seventh at Kentucky, dominating last week's race at Daytona en route to a third-place finish, and very quietly padding his lead atop the points. Although his 2013 destination has yet to be revealed, other stories -- AJ Allmendinger's drug test, Austin Dillon's penalties -- have taken some of the spotlight away from Kenseth, which is likely just fine with him.
So there he his, humming along, as always. Yes, it's only been a few weeks, and who knows how things might change on the No. 17 team once the pressure of a championship push is combined with the emotion over the driver's impending departure. But if anyone in NASCAR has the mindset to push everything else aside and focus solely on the job on the race track, it's the steely Wisconsin native, who has made a career out of hanging around until the end and making his move at the right time. While there's no question he can get excitable over the radio sometimes -- anyone scanning his channel at Daytona knows as much -- Kenseth's steady, almost clinical manner never will serve him better than it will right now, as he tries to win a title with a team he will say goodbye to in five months.
In the process, he could do something that's never been done before. Although crew chief Darian Grubb won a title with Tony Stewart despite being fired effective at the end of last year, in the long history of NASCAR's premier series, we've never really seen a driver win a championship and then leave an organization that still was active the following season. While there have been many high-profile moves by champion drivers -- Stewart to Stewart-Haas, Kurt Busch to Penske, Terry Labonte to Hendrick, Darrell Waltrip to Junior Johnson -- they've all come following campaigns where someone else has won the title. If Kenseth wins his second crown with Roush before heading to Joe Gibbs Racing or wherever, he will make some history in the process.
A few others have come close. Busch failed to finish the 2005 season with Roush after his adventure with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department, but he was with the team to that point and didn't bolt to Penske until a full year after his championship campaign. Cale Yarborough stayed with Johnson for two full seasons after the last of his three consecutive championships in 1978. David Pearson's split with Cotton Owens, with whom he had won the title in 1966, didn't come until 10 races into the following season. Bobby Allison remained with DiGard for a season and a half after his 1983 championship, and Raymond Beadle didn't shut down his Blue Max team until the year after Rusty Wallace won his crown in 1989.
There's only one recorded instance that even approaches a championship driver moving on to compete elsewhere at the end of his title campaign, and you have to go way, way back to find it. Buck Baker was part of the sport's first real juggernaut of a team, a multi-car operation fielded by powerboat magnate Carl Kiekhaefer that dominated NASCAR for two seasons. It was an incredible run, one that netted 52 races wins and consecutive championships with Tim Flock in 1955 and Baker in '56. Buoyed by money from the company he founded -- which would later become Mercury Marine -- Kiekhaefer oversaw a powerhouse stable of drivers that also included Johnson, Herb Thomas, Speedy Thompson and Charlie Scott.
According to his biography in a Detroit motorsports hall of fame, Kiekhaefer was the first NASCAR car owner to have his crewmen wear uniforms and the first to bring his cars to the track in covered trucks. Another Wisconsin native, Kiekhaefer's runaway success prompted some natural grumbling among rivals and led NASCAR to implement rules changes to try and even the competition. So in January 1957 he pulled out, concerned that the negative publicity might hurt his boat business. Baker, the sport's reigning champion, ran some that season for Hugh Babb before fielding his own car and winning the title once again.
Even that example, though, has to be accompanied by a large asterisk, given that Baker had to move on because his former team was shutting down. And that was in the era where drivers regularly competed for multiple car owners in a single season, muddying the waters somewhat as to who was their primary car owner. Even in 1956, the year in which he's credited as winning the championship with Kiekhaefer, Baker ran a handful of races for long-forgotten owners James Satcher and John Whitford. Other than Lee and Richard Petty, who drove exclusively for Petty Enterprises, most other champions of that day did the same thing, gravitating toward the best rides they could find, even if it involved switching cars in the middle of the year.
All of which means Kenseth could pull off a first, if he can finish off the small matter of winning the championship in his final season with Roush. No question that mission will become more difficult as the season moves forward, particularly if Kenseth doesn't win more races and has to start the Chase in the middle of the pack. But at the moment, his impending move doesn't appear to be the road block it once did. Surrounded by many crew members who have been with him for a long time, blessed with a mentality that helps him to see through the clutter, Kenseth seems as equipped as any driver to do something that's never been done.
"I don't think it's a distraction unless you let it become one," he told reporters Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. "I think it's business as usual. It doesn't change anything for this season, or what our goals are, or how we prepare or how hard we work toward the goal of trying to win races and win a championship. It doesn't really change anything in my mind. We've been there a long time. We made a commitment to race through 2012, and it doesn't really change anything, except for what we're doing in 2013 and beyond."
Surely, there will be moments that test that. The grand unveiling of his 2013 ride will once again shift so much of the focus to the future, and act as something of a challenge to a driver who is trying to stay in the present. But to this point there's zero evidence to indicate that Kenseth or his team members -- many of whom have steady demeanors which mirror that of their driver -- are being negatively affected by all of this. After all, his lead at the top of the standings gets a little larger with each passing week.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Matt Kenseth