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NASCAR notebook: Kenseth’s hot streak prompts question of team’s role

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this is an edited caption

The sunglasses tried to hide it, but the voice couldn’t lie. Matt Kenseth stood in Victory Lane at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, confetti fluttering and his voice quivering as it began to sink in that he had won his second straight race to start the Chase for the Sprint Cup. It was a different Kenseth, a break from the methodical and stoic personality that has been a fixture in racing for a decade and a half.

This year has also seen a different Kenseth, one who’s made racing look easy as he’s ripped through both the regular and postseasons. He’s 2-for-2 in Chase races, has a Sprint Cup-high seven wins (three more than anyone else) and has led 1,344 laps, also best in the circuit.

This is the same driver, in name at least, who won a Sprint Cup title in 2003 while winning only once, who went winless in three of the five

seasons prior to this one and who hadn’t led 1,000 laps in a season since 2006. Kenseth, for years, had been a title contender, but rarely a favorite. This year, he may have taken hold of the championship for good, and it’s not even October yet.

It’s no mystery what happened. Kenseth jumped to Joe Gibbs Racing before the season and apparently flipped a switch. Racing with a team that also sports Kyle Busch (second in the standings) and Denny Hamlin, a perennial Chase inclusion, Kenseth has been a force each week, raising the question in the process each time: To what degree does the team matter in NASCAR?

The team Kenseth left behind, Roush Fenway Racing, is no slouch. It’s the same team that fell a hair short of a title in 2011 when Carl Edwards finished a single point behind Tony Stewart in the Chase, and the one that also places Greg Biffle in the postseason year after year. There’s no doubting RFR’s quality as a team, but it’s impossible to ignore the effect Gibbs has had on Kenseth. The 41-year-old is enjoying the best season of his life, with a career-high in victories and laps led already with eight races left. When he won at Loudon, a place where he had never won and had recorded a 13.8 average finish, the first thing he did was thank his team. That’s par for the course for the race winner, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Kenseth said it with a little more sincerity.

If Kenseth is exhibit A for those who want to argue that the team is everything in Sprint Cup, evidence the other way exists six spots behind in the standings. The team doesn’t matter much to Kurt Busch, who made the Chase and is still eyeing a title with Colorado-based Furniture Row Racing. Granted, with its alliance with Richard Childress Racing, Furniture Row is a little better off than most of the have-nots in the sport, but it’s still a one-car team, and its driver is duking it out with the best Gibbs, Roush and Hendrick have to offer.

Busch’s success supports the notion that the driver is the most important criteria for a good year, as did Stewart’s in 2011, when the Indiana native won for the team he co-owned and had left Gibbs for only two years earlier. Clint Bowyer also followed the formula, going from Childress to the less prestigious Michael Waltrip Racing last year and finishing second in the standings.

Could Kenseth have caught fire like this for Roush Fenway? The debate is out there, with both sides to it on the track at the same time, but one thing can’t be doubted: While joining Gibbs may or may not have been the reason Kenseth is on track for a title, neither side is regretting the decision.

The magic was missing

For several Chasers, a trip to Loudon meant going to a track they had won at, and therefore offered an opportunity to either get back in the championship picture or close in on a title.

Not so fast. Apparently, the Magic Mile had its claws out.

Five drivers who have made their way to Victory Lane at Loudon left last Sunday’s race scratching their heads and wondering what went wrong. They figured they would make progress going into Dover, and instead ended up farther back than they had been to start.

The worst day belonged to Kasey Kahne, the July 2012 champ who needed a good day after finishing 12th at Chicago. Instead, he slammed the No. 5 into the pit wall, and had to come to grips with a 37th-place finish that put his title hopes in serious jeopardy.

He wasn’t alone. Clint Bowyer, who won September races in 2007 and 2010 and stated that racing at Loudon feels “effortless,” settled for 17th after a ninth-place finish the weekend before. Ryan Newman, a three-time winner, came in 16th after running 10th in Chicago.

Even the top finishers in the first Chase race weren’t immune. Kurt Busch, who won both Loudon races in 2004 en route to a championship and came in first again in June 2008, went from fourth to 13th. Kevin Harvick, the September 2006 winner, plummeted from third to 20th.

Three up

∎ Matt Kenseth: Duh. Kenseth became only the third driver, after Greg Biffle in 2008 and Tony Stewart in 2011, to win the first two races of the Chase.

∎ Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Rebounded from a 35th-place debacle in Chicago to place sixth at Loudon, then grabbed the pole for this afternoon’s Dover race. Imagine the media attention if he wins today.

∎ Kyle Busch: Two races, two runner-up finishes. Joe Gibbs Racing is making a mockery of this playoff thing so far.

Three down

∎ Kasey Kahne: Two races in, Kahne has a 37th-place finish and an in-race Loudon interview in which he looked disoriented to show for it. Not good.

∎ Kevin Harvick: Finishing third at Chicago put finishing his tenure with Richard Childress Racing with a title in the crosshairs, but a 20th-place effort at Loudon puts him back in the pack.

∎ Joey Logano: He’s back with Kahne in the need-a-miracle group after finishes of 37th and 14th at Chicago and Loudon, respectively, put him in 12th.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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