The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ Camping World 500 on Oct. 20 at Talladega Superspeedway was all about survival.
Matt Kenseth, who entered the race leading the Sprint Cup standings by four points over Jimmie Johnson, made more right moves than most throughout the race. He led four times for 32 laps and overcame a loose racecar to get back to the front. He was in the lead pack for most of the event.
Kenseth’s reward for such a strong showing? A 20th-place finish.
He lost his points lead after being shuffled out of the top 10 late in the race. Kenseth heads to Martinsville Speedway for the seventh of 10 Chase for the Sprint Cup races trailing Johnson by four points.
Following Talladega, known as one of NASCAR’s wild-card races for its large crashes and unpredictable finishes, Kenseth believes things slow down – literally and figuratively – at Martinsville.
“I could throw you five names and I bet that unless they break that all five of them are in the top eight,” Kenseth said. “I think Martinsville is actually really, really predictable. I don't look at that as a big wild card. I was really proud of our performance in the spring (where he finished 14th).”
Kenseth’s result at Talladega, coupled with Jimmie Johnson’s 13th-place finish, tightened the points battle. Seven drivers are within 52 points of Johnson: Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle.
Earnhardt benefitted the most at Talladega, where he led 38 laps and finished second.
Steve Letarte, Earnhardt’s crew chief, echoed Kenseth’s sentiments about the next race.
“I don’t consider Martinsville a wild card,” Letarte said. “I think you can make your own luck at Martinsville. I think good cars persevere and ride to the front.”
But with Kenseth and Johnson ahead by 22 points over Harvick, their nearest competition, the title chase is shaping up to be decided between the top two.
Kenseth said he’s not thinking about who could win at Martinsville. His focus is on getting the best result his No. 20 team can post.
“I look forward to going to Martinsville, and I look at it as an opportunity,” he said. “Maybe not to beat the 48 (Johnson), they're pretty strong everywhere, but I look at that as an opportunity to go run good and hopefully run up in the top five or six and get a good finish."
Johnson has become something of an expert at Martinsville since his first race at the track in 2002. He’s won at Martinsville eight times in 23 starts, so it’s an accomplishment just to keep pace with Johnson when the tour heads to the southern Virginia track.
After the less-than-stellar finish at Talladega, Kenseth said he’s moving on and not worrying about what he could have done differently to keep the points lead.
“I don’t think it’ll affect my team,” Kenseth told ESPN. “I think we’ve got one of the greatest teams out here and honestly, I think we can race with anybody when we’re at our best.”