By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- When Matt Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing team won a significant reduction of penalties on appeal, the benefits for Kenseth were obvious.
But the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel's ruling also helped Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, who needs every edge he can find in a long-shot attempt to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Where Kenseth is concerned, the reduction of his points penalty from 50 to 12 vaulted the driver of the No. 20 Toyota to fourth in the Cup standings, solidly in a Chase-eligible position. The original 50-point penalty -- the result of an underweight connecting rod NASCAR discovered in Kenseth's race-winning car after the Apr. 21 event at Kansas -- had knocked Kenseth outside the top 10.
Hamlin missed four races after suffering a compression fracture of his first lumbar vertebra in a last-lap crash at Fontana, Calif., in late March. Last week at Talladega, he gave way to relief driver Brian Vickers after 23 laps and earned 10 points after Vickers finished 34th.
That left Hamlin 31st in the points, needing to win at least one race and improve 11 positions in the standings to compete for a Wild Card spot in the Chase.
If Kenseth, who has won twice, remains in the top 10, that's one potential Wild Card driver Hamlin won't have to beat. (The two Wild Card positions in the Chase go to the two drivers in positions 11-20 in the standings with the most victories. If drivers have an equal number of wins, the tiebreaker is position in the standings.)
In Hamlin's view, the reduction of Kenseth's points penalty opened up a Wild Card spot.
"It now put him (Kenseth) solidly inside the top-10, so that was big," Hamlin told the NASCAR Wire Service on Friday at Darlington Raceway. "Honestly, until I win races, I've got to root on all the frontrunners to win the next few weeks at least until the Chase starts to not occupy Chase spots. "So it was big for us because Matt has had a win on record, and he was outside the top 10, so that was big. The rescinding really helped us a ton also."
Paul Menard says he's close to a contract extension with Richard Childress Racing and hopes to have an announcement to that effect shortly.
"We don't have anything to announce yet," Menard told FoxSports.com on Friday at Darlington. "I haven't signed anything. Hopefully, we do that soon. We're just going to work hard to get the deal done, and when we do, we'll let you know."
Menard's crew chief, Richard "Slugger" Labbe, already has signed an extension with RCR, and he and Menard have been an inseparable and successful pair for the past four seasons, the past three with Childress.
Since coming to RCR with Labbe in 2011, Menard has enjoyed his three most productive seasons. Though 10 races this year he's ninth in the standings and happy to be with the Childress organization.
"It's a great place," Menard said. "We're making a lot of improvements also. When I came in we were running real good. It seemed like last year we took a step back, but Richard has invested a lot in making the company better, and we're seeing that right now. It's a very exciting place to be."
EYE ON A RECORD?
Saturday night's Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington marked Jeff Gordon's 700th start in the Sprint Cup Series, all consecutive.
That's the longest consecutive streak in any of the major sports, but Gordon isn't ready to contemplate breaking Ricky Rudd's Cup mark of 788 -- not yet. Assuming a 36-event schedule and no break in action for Gordon, the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet would break Rudd's record in the 28th race of 2015.
"Never say never, but that to me is like David Pearson's 105 wins," said Gordon, who with 87 Cup victories is third behind Pearson on the all-time list. "It's too far out there. You have to get closer before you can think realistically about those things. I never dreamed I'd make 700 consecutive starts.
"It's just an amazing thing for me to try to swallow right now, because it's been an amazing run of great teams and cars and going from like 28 races my first year now to 36. So a lot of things happened over the years. I'm just enjoying the moment right now of those 700 and not thinking ahead too much."