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Kenseth clinches Chase spot, eyes bigger goals

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HAMPTON, Ga. -- Relief.

After having to deal with rabble-rousers around the sport spout off for the past 25 weeks about how a "winless Matt Kenseth is in danger of missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup a year after winning a series-high seven wins," the Joe Gibbs Racing driver can finally rest easy a week before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series playoffs are set to kick off after clinching his berth Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

While Kenseth certainly didn't go about things the easy way -- he became the first driver to secure his spot by virtue of points -- the 2003 champion's No. 20 Toyota team was in position to take home the Oral-B USA 500 giant toothbrush of a trophy before ceding to race-winner Kasey Kahne on a green-white-checkered finish to pull in second.

"We did all we could," said Kenseth. "Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) is pretty much the man. He works every week to make these cars fast enough to win and also calls these races to win and we have the best crew on pit road. We knew if we were in front, we'd at least have a chance.

"That's what I love about Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) -- he gives me a chance.  I couldn’t hold on and get it for him, but he gave me a shot at it. … Things are looking up for us."

They certainly are.

Sure, the 20 team is still winless, but now that he's in Kenseth immediately shoots to the top tier of Chase favorites just based on his squad's 2014 overall consistency. His 10 top-five finishes rank second in the series to three-time winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 11 and fall just two shy of his entire 2013 total -- with 11 races to go.

Ever the glass-half-empty type, Kenseth, however, still sees that zero in the 'W' column.

"I'd like to consistently have wins, that’s what I'd like to have," Kenseth said before conceding "the team has really been performing at a high level all year, really. I know when you look at the record books we have some crashes and some bad finishes and we don't have a win yet, but I feel like our pit stops have been more consistent and faster than they were last year. I think our team has a lot of confidence, knock on wood, we haven't had any kind of mechanical failures. I feel like the team is really ready, we just need a little more speed. I feel like we're doing everything we can, we just need a little bit more to get over that hump and be standing over there in Victory Lane."

There's still a great chance that Kenseth will join his JGR cohorts Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin as drivers who have stood in Victory Lane this year, but in the mean time it's time for them to celebrate one of their biggest organizational goals -- getting all three drivers into the Chase for the first time since 2008.

"That was the goal, to have all three JGR cars in the Chase and we were able to accomplish that," Kenseth said. "The ultimate goal is for one of us to be able to win the championship. I feel like we're gaining on it. I'm not a huge believer in momentum, but yet I feel like everyone is really clicking together and working well together and the stops are good. I feel like we're doing everything right right now, we just need a little more speed to be able to start getting those wins."

Ratcliff -- in his second year manning the pit box for Kenseth -- agreed.
He also knows his team might be the best positioned of the three to make a run at what would be Kenseth's first title in over a decade, just based on their consistency and momentum.

"We have several goals going into the season. That's obviously one of them to be in that final showdown and be a contender," said the veteran crew chief.

"Not just one of the 16, but be a legitimate contender for the championship. I think our season started off a little bit slow. We had moments where I was definitely concerned about (missing the Chase) but I think we're gaining some momentum at the right time here.

"Wins are what you're going to have to do if you expect to do anything at Homestead, but I think there's going to be at least one car that's going to transfer on consistency, so hopefully we can do both -- win and be consistent," Ratcliff said.

"If you have a legitimate shot and take some risks like we did tonight, if it puts you in contention to win a race, then absolutely that's something that we've done well over the last two seasons and I don't think we would stop playing that game now."

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