CONCORD, N.C. (AP) - Matt Kenseth is ready to get back to work.
Kenseth and his first-year team at Joe Gibbs Racing have had plenty to celebrate this season with a Sprint Cup-best three victories and seven top-10 finishes in 11 events. But he wasn’t a factor last week in the All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and knows he has some challenges to overcome before getting back to his winning ways in the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night.
“Last weekend didn’t exactly go as planned,” said Kenseth, who wound up ninth in the All-Star event.
Judging from Kenseth’s past performances in the 600, he might only need a couple of fast laps to turn things around. The 2003 champion won the circuit’s longest race in 2000, then finished among the top 10 in eight of the next 12.
“The 600 has always been unique,” Kenseth said. “We have our first win here so maybe that’s part of it. This is the first track that I made my first Nationwide start at and have more miles here at this track than at any other on the circuit.”
Kenseth doesn’t generally take much from the All-Star race _ good or bad _ into the 600. He’ll rely on what he’s learned this season in his first go-round at JGR. The team’s last success came just two weeks ago when he swept past teammate Kyle Busch in the closing laps to win the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Kenseth stands third in points and, with NASCAR approaching its midseason before the 10-race championship chase, looks a strong bet to contend for a second title.
Kenseth has enjoyed the success, but has kept things in perspective.
“Whether it was a great week or a terrible week, I think you always have to get focused on what’s coming next and keep working on trying to get better,” Kenseth said.
It’s an approach that’s fit well at Joe Gibbs Racing. Team president J.D. Gibbs has watched the 41-year-old Kenseth take a leadership role in the shop with the 28-year-old Busch and the 32-year-old Denny Hamlin.
“I think it’s really been a blessing for Joe Gibbs Racing to have him join our team. We look forward to a great future,” Gibbs said.
JGR had a great Thursday night of qualifying with Hamlin setting a track record to win the pole for the Coca-Cola 600, Kenseth starting third and Busch eighth. The camaraderie was easy to see with Kenseth bursting in to Hamlin’s media session after the win and screaming, “Wahaa, Denny Hamlin.”
“Wow,” Hamlin said, smiling. “My teammate.”
Hamlin agreed that Kenseth has raised everyone’s game at the shop. “We were really strong when Tony (Stewart) was around, but Matt, he’s taken us to another level,” Hamlin said.
Kenseth will have plenty of competitors trying to take the checkered flag in NASCAR’s longest race. Defending champion Kasey Kahne broke through for his first Sprint Cup victory as part of Hendrick Motorsports.
Five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson is on top in points again and took victory at Daytona and Martinsville along with his All-Star win of last week. Johnson won’t get caught up in the chase for championship number six just yet. There’s too much time, he says, for anyone to focus too much on protecting positions down the road.
“It is a fine balance, not only for the driver but for the teams,” Johnson said.
Mental and physical stamina will be tested throughout the long, long race, which starts at 6 p.m. when temperatures are their hottest and ends five hours or so later when the track has cooled considerably. The changing conditions keep a driver focused on what’s to come, Kenseth said, and attuned to things like handling and tire wear.
“The main thing I always try to do is try to look ahead, especially in this race and try and stay on top of the track changes,” Kenseth said.
Clint Bowyer, who won the fall race at Charlotte last season, says the fatigue of the long distance catches up with all the competitors eventually, no matter how good their seasons have gone up to now.
“There’s always a point where you’re `Where we at?’” he said. “And then you’ll hear ‘20 (laps) to halfway’ and you go, `What?’ It’s certainly a long race.”
Few teams have handled things at all tracks better than Kenseth’s this season.
Kyle Busch had the most dominant car at Darlington two weeks back while Kenseth maintained position in the lead group and took advantage when the opportunity _ in this case a cut tire for Busch _ came late in the Southern 500.
Kenseth’s comfortable with his position in the standings and in the sport. He loves the hot streak he’s on and looks for that to keep going the next few months before cut for the championship chasers is made in September.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to win some more races and before that and hopefully we’ll be able to run like we did to start this year off or improve a little bit,” Kenseth said. “And we can be in that conversation.”
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