Matt Kenseth lost the lead of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ at Talladega Superspeedway and trails five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson by four points.
The remaining schedule – with two of four races on 1.5-mile tracks – would appear to favor the 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. Four of Kenseth’s seven 2013 victories have come on 1.5-mile layouts.
Yet Kenseth can’t afford to look too far into the future; certainly not past Sunday’s stop at .526-mile Martinsville Speedway where the Wisconsin driver has struggled since becoming a fulltime NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competitor in 2000.
For Kenseth and Johnson, Martinsville is a study in contrasts. Johnson is the acknowledged master of the historic, southern Virginia track leading all comers in virtually every statistical category.
Not so much for Kenseth, who has yet to win in 27 starts. He has only three top fives, no poles and an average finish of 15.8 – fully 10 positions worse than Johnson. Kenseth’s average starting position of 21.2 is his worst among current NASCAR Sprint Cup tracks. The last stat is significant: 10 of the last 12 Martinsville races have been won from a starting position within the top 10.
Still. Virtually all of Kenseth’s Martinsville frustration came in his 14 seasons as a Roush Fenway Racing driver. Neither he nor his teammates excelled at the track. RFR’s last of four victories – by Kurt Busch – came in the fall of 2002.
Kenseth’s first trip to the track in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota produced a positive counterpoint to past woes. He qualified eighth in April, finished 13th and led 96 laps – 23 more than his previous combined Martinsville total.
Since 2000, JGR’s seven Martinsville victories are second only to Hendrick Motorsports. Denny Hamlin won three consecutive races in 2009-10. The team has produced at least one top-10 finish in 16 consecutive races dating to fall 2005.