LOUDON, N.H. -- With 20 percent of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in the books, Joe Gibbs Racing is faced with a bit of an awkward dilemma. Which car number should it write on the order for Homestead championship hats -- 18 or 20?
Sure, there are still eight races left before the champion is crowned, but after consecutive 1-2 finishes to open the Chase, a Matt Kenseth or Kyle Busch title this year appears imminent -- save for a return to dominance from Jimmie Johnson (which may come this weekend at Dover).
The ever-sardonic Kenseth, winner of Sunday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, put it best.
"Man, what a terrible problem to have, huh?"
Kenseth's consecutive victories at Chicagoland and Loudon, combined with his five during the regular season, have given him a career-high wins total (seven) and the series points lead. With Busch crossing the start/finish line right after Kenseth in both races, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota stands 14 points behind Kenseth, the 2003 champion, in second place.
More than half the Chase field finds itself 40 points or more behind the blistering Kenseth. Down just 18 points, Johnson is still in the hunt. Carl Edwards (-36), Greg Biffle (-38) and Kevin Harvick (-39) need to gain ground quickly, or they could soon see their holes deepen.
"It's been a great start for JGR. Kyle ran second both races and had real strong cars," Kenseth said after notching his first career win at Loudon in his 500th series start. "All three teams right now are working really closely together. I'm not sure where Denny (Hamlin) ended up, but I know he had a real good run. I just feel like the luckiest guy in the world to be standing here, honestly. I'm going to enjoy it and then look forward to getting to Dover."
The way this Chase has started for not just the 20 team, but the 18 team as well, is the culmination of what the organization has been building upon all season. The JGR Toyotas have been fast since Daytona, but have also experienced some engine malfunctions. Now that those appear to be squared away, both teams -- and engines -- are running on all cylinders.
"We sat down a couple weeks ago and just kind of had a little informal meeting, went to lunch, and I think our philosophy or thought process coming in was, 'let's just continue to do what we've been doing,' " said Kenseth's crew chief Jason Ratcliff of the team's Chase strategy. "It's been pretty successful so far this season, so let's ?? we don't need to do anything different, we don't need to do anything new, and the guys have done a really good job of doing that, of paying attention to details and executing at the shop as well as at the race track. And we're just going to continue to do that. Obviously we haven't done anything different than we've done all season for the last two weeks, and it's worked pretty well for us, so we're just going to continue to do that, and I think it'll pan out."
Although it may look like the 18 and 20 will be fighting for a win every week the rest of the way, a lot can happen. In 2008, Busch had all the momentum heading into the Chase. He racked up eight wins in the regular season before "falling right on my face," as he described it, limping his way to a 10th-place finish in the standings at season's end.
Still, an extra five years of experience and a new teammate in his stable with a wealth of experience make the likelihood of another collapse slim. Busch brushed off the notion that he and Kenseth have much of an advantage over the other drivers after two races.
"It's early. I mean, it's week two," Busch said. "Certainly it's nice to get a strong start. There's no doubt about it. You'd rather finish first both weeks than 43rd and get yourself up there and get a strong foundation built to where you can continue on down the road and maybe not have so much pressure on yourself to have to perform to catch up. But that's good that we're both up there like that, that we're able to do that and that we're pushing each other hard and that we're pushing the competition, as well, too. ... You've still got to work hard and persevere. It's eight more weeks."
All of this comes nearly a decade after JGR's last title (Tony Stewart in 2005), so what changes have enabled the three-car organization to become the favorite to win its fourth championship? Team president J.D. Gibbs points to one major personnel move -- bringing Kenseth on board after 13 years at Roush Fenway Racing.
"It's one of those things, like honestly, if you get the right people in your organization, the rest is easy," Gibbs said. "I'm not allowed to touch any cars, touch any equipment, but we just have a great team, and those guys, Matt and Jason, have really jelled well. They've helped Kyle out and Denny, so it's just been fun to be a part of that whole process."
A second championship for Kenseth would be the perfect end to what has been a dream season for the veteran driver. As the last driver to win a title before the Chase format was established, winning this year would bring his career full circle.
"It's a blessing to be driving for these guys," Kenseth said. "I'm having the time of my life this year, so hopefully we can keep it rolling for eight more weeks."
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