AVONDALE, ARIZ. (AP) - Roughly two months into the season, Mark Martin was having a conversation with Matt Kenseth about the fast start to Kenseth’s year. Kenseth had grabbed two wins in his first eight races with Joe Gibbs Racing, and Martin believed his former teammate could have legitimately won all eight of the events.
“I expected him to win races and be awesome and be Matt Kenseth, but the start he had, he could have won them all. Bar none. That was staggering,” Martin recalled. “And I remember last year when he was getting ready to leave, he was scared to death. I liked that about him. I liked the fact that he was scared.
“So I like what I see right now. He’s living a dream and hitting his full potential, and you don’t always get an opportunity to hit your full potential.”
Now, 10 years after winning the only Cup championship of his career, Kenseth is in the thick of another title race. He goes into the penultimate race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway trailing Jimmie Johnson by seven points in the standings.
It’s not a surprise that Kenseth is in the championship picture. After all, he finished second to Johnson in 2006 and has made the Chase every year since its 2004 launch except for 2009 _ the year he won the season opening Daytona 500 and the next week’s race at California.
What is a surprise is seven wins from a driver who has built a career on consistent finishes. Kenseth’s previous best was five wins in 2002, and he had settled in as a driver content to win a handful of races a year.
So if you’d asked him in December, as he climbed into his new No. 20 Toyota for JGR for the first time, if he ever imagined what was to come, there’s no way Kenseth could have known the spoils ahead of him this season.
“It would have been hard to believe somebody if they said we would have had seven wins and done some of the things that we did this year in our first year together, because throughout my whole career I’ve never been able to do that,” Kenseth admitted.
But part of that may have been because of the ups and downs of the Roush-Fenway Racing organization. Although his JGR team had been through four underachieving seasons with Joey Logano, the No. 20 car won two championships with Tony Stewart and the organization routinely contends for titles with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.
Now with Kenseth in the mix, those who have raced against him since his 2000 Cup rookie season believed anything was possible.
“You never know how somebody’s going to transition into a new team,” said four-time champion Jeff Gordon. “You look at that team in past years, they certainly haven’t shown to be a threat for the championship. But I feel like from Matt’s talents and capabilities, while they might have been diminished slightly with his results at Roush, I think that a lot of us within the sport knew just how good he was.
“You put him with the right equipment, the right team, the crew chief that he gels with, he can put up some great numbers, and that’s what he’s doing this year.”
The 41-year-old Kenseth is probably one of the most underrated drivers by fans in NASCAR.
His win at Darlington this season gave him another NASCAR crown jewel, adding the Southern 500 to a collection that already includes two Daytona 500 wins, a Coca-Cola 600 victory, a Bristol night race and a win in the All-Star race. The only major missing on Kenseth’s resume is the Brickyard, and of the six active tracks where he’s yet to win, the only glaring weakness is that two of the venues are road courses.