Has Matt Kenseth Unlocked the Key to Success in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase?

Geoffrey MillerContributor IJune 30, 2013

Clean air is helping Matt Kenseth turn gambles into wins.
Clean air is helping Matt Kenseth turn gambles into wins.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus seem to have found the solution to the complicated formula that NASCAR's new Gen-6 car routinely needs to go fast. Johnson said as much after his June win at Pocono Raceway, and his top ranking in the point standings is very demonstrative.

But it's Matt Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing team who seem to have figured out the formula that finds victory lane—especially at Sprint Cup’s 1.5-mile tracks.

It’s a recipe that could very well prove successful in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

At the basic level, it seems exceedingly obvious: Kenseth and Co. have found out that being in the lead late in races is proving especially helpful to actually winning those races. That’s pretty easy to figure out, right? After all, race winners do tend to lead late in races.

What Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliffe—intentionally or unintentionally—have exploited to four wins in the season’s first 17 races is that leading by either the end of the final pit stop or the last caution flag is a nearly irrevocable advantage.

How that’s accomplished doesn’t seem to even matter much.

At Kentucky Speedway, for example, Kenseth merely took a splash of fuel on the final pit stop to ensure he had the lead. The cars immediately behind Kenseth mostly pitted for two new right side tires. Kenseth emerged from pit road, held off contenders for two restarts, kept a charging Jamie McMurray at bay in the final five laps and was first to the checkered flag.

It helped, of course, that Johnson—dominant for much of the race—spun on the first restart and was relegated backward. But even then, drivers who had raced ahead of Kenseth for most of the race and that had taken fresh right side tires on the final pit stop couldn’t overcome him.

It was nearly identical to Kenseth’s wins at Kansas and Las Vegas, where a charging Kasey Kahne was foiled twice when Kenseth simply moved his car into the same lane just ahead of where Kahne was racing.

Kenseth and other drivers—see Kevin Harvick’s win at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May—are taking advantage of the seemingly increased aerodynamic effect of “clean air” on NASCAR’s new car model.

Clean air means the air hitting the nose of a race car is undisturbed, producing maximum downforce. Trailing cars, however, travel through highly agitated air that produces decreased and unpredictable levels of downforce.

To overcome the disadvantage, the trailing car needs to be notably quicker than the leading car—a tough reach for most regular top-20 Sprint Cup competitors these days.

Of course, it’s not correct to say that Kenseth has only won races because he’s finding a way to lead late. The No. 20 has led more than 100 laps in four races this season (three of which he hasn’t won) and has been plenty competitive in more.

But it is fair to think that Kenseth’s team has become more adept than the others at willingly taking unusual gambles with strategy in late-race situations this season. And because of that, Kenseth—despite not being routinely faster than Jimmie Johnson this year—may have the inside line to be Johnson’s staunchest competitor when NASCAR’s playoffs start in September.

That’s because the Chase has a heavy amount of tracks where clean air has already shown to be king this season (including races at Kansas, Charlotte, Phoenix and Texas) and a few more where it seems inevitable. Just two races—Martinsville (slow speeds) and Talladega (speed-limited, restrictor plate racing)—promise to be virtually unaltered by the clean-air effect.

Other teams have undoubtedly started to take notice of the strategy employed by Kenseth. Mimicry won’t be far behind.

But Kenseth, with his four wins, is on pace to be the top-seeded driver in the Chase. He’s also a virtual lock into the championship battle, making it easier for the team to gamble even more strongly before the Chase kickoff event at Chicagoland Speedway in September.

Should those gambles continue to pay off, and should that notebook of firsthand experience in how they work continue to grow, Kenseth’s chances for the title will only keep improving.