The dance card to NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup championship is filling up.
Jimmie Johnson’s win in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday means 10 of the 16 spots for the new playoff format are likely claimed with 14 races to go.
Of all the names absent from the roll call of winners this season, Matt Kenseth’s might be the most conspicuous.
A year ago, Kenseth won a series-most seven races and finished second in the Chase to Johnson. This year, Kenseth has nine top-10 finishes in 12 starts but has yet to win, which would assure him of a spot in the Chase for the ninth time in 11 years.
It’s been frustrating for Kenseth, the 2003 Sprint Cup champion.
“Whenever your team does everything, everything falls the right way, they put you out in the front at the end of the race, you don’t win the race, you’re always frustrated and disappointed,” Kenseth said after finishing third last weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“You don’t get a lot of those opportunities. Although I felt like I did everything I could possibly do, we just weren’t quick enough to hold ‘em off. That’s a little bit disappointing. I feel like we’re gaining on it. Certainly we’re not where we were at this time last year.”
Despite the inability to win, Kenseth’s consistency has him second in the points standings, just 11 behind Kansas Speedway winner Jeff Gordon. If there are not 16 race winners, the rest of the Chase field will be determined by points. And any race winner not among the top 30 in points will not qualify for the Chase. So winning is not everything. But …
“For me it’s not any different,” said Kenseth, who has twice in his career won the spring race at Dover, Del., site of Sunday’s Sprint Cup FedEx 400. “The pressure and urgency to win is there each and every week. At least it is for me. These are all huge races. Not many of us that get to do this every week. There’s even a smaller group that gets to do it at a real competitive, high level that actually has a chance to win these things, so …
“It’s a big deal to win any of these races. Always has been. I’ve never been in the front in the end and not wanted to win. You race as hard as you can for these wins. You hate it when you can’t hold on and win it. You can only do your best and take your result for that day.”
Kenseth’s two Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Kyle Busch (California) and Denny Hamlin (Talladega) already have won races this year, but Kenseth has come so close this year, it’s still too soon to panic.
“You feel better running third than you do 33rd, for sure,” Kenseth said. “Definitely be more panicked if you couldn’t stay on the lead lap than if you’re getting beat at the end of the race and finishing third. Certainly there’s a difference there. You can only work on it so hard.”