CONCORD – Matt Kenseth spent most of the Bank of America 500 running in a position low enough that it appeared he’d lose his Sprint Cup points lead to Jimmie Johnson.
Kenseth had other plans.
His No. 20 Dollar General Toyota, caught a late break, made up ground and finished third in the Oct. 12 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The result was enough to maintain his scant four-point advantage over Johnson with five races left in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
A late-race caution kept Johnson from what appeared to be a sure win. He wound up fourth and didn’t gain points on the leader.
It’s been a recurring theme over the past few weeks: Kenseth doesn't start every race with lots of speed – he qualified 20th at Charlotte – but he’s in good shape when it counts.
He’s already won a career-high seven races this year. A second championship may be around the corner.
Kenseth believes it’s because his Huntersville-based Joe Gibbs Racing team is maximizing its potential every week. Kenseth made his JGR debut in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 24, a race he dominated before blowing an engine. It may go down as the low point for the team this year.
“Honestly, I have to say the race team was really strong from the start of the season,” Kenseth said. “I feel like the first couple of months were hit-and-miss maybe a little bit on pit road, where we are just nailing it all the time now.”
Pit stops become more crucial during the Chase, when drivers need to beat their opponents in the season’s final 10 races to gain track position and valuable points.
Kenseth’s pit crew helped him at Charlotte, but it was the driver who made his way past Johnson and into third place at the finish. He came just feet short of passing Kasey Kahne for second, which would’ve pushed his points lead to four.
Kenseth said he has full confidence in his pit crew, especially late in races when pit stops can make or break a race weekend. In Kenseth’s case, they helped make it.
“I think the over-the-wall guys have gotten better,” Kenseth said. “They’ve gotten used to how I come into the box, how I leave. I feel like our timing is much better. Pit stops have a lot to do with that, timing and being there when the car stops. I feel like after probably the second month of the season they’ve been on it and they’ve really been killing it lately.”
Kenseth hasn’t done so bad himself, according to Bank of America 500 winner Brad Keselowski. He complimented Kenseth after the race, saying Kenseth races clean and smart, “the way I think this sport should.”
Kenseth, for his part, isn’t focused on driving styles. He wants the championship, and he’s five races from winning it. One slip-up could cost him, but Kenseth is more confident in his organization now than ever as the tour heads to Talladega Superspeedway.
“I feel like my team has been real strong,” he said. “We’ll go race hard, and hopefully things will work out for us.”