In its seventh full-time Sprint Cup season, Toyota is facing its best chance ever to finally claim a Sprint Cup title with Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, both of whom have had a very stout 2013 season.
Although Kenseth has had better luck than Busch with six wins to Busch's four, Busch has been showing a maturity that we haven't seen during his racing career.
Kenseth's career has been rejuvenated since joining Gibbs at the beginning of the year, as has been evidenced by his showings every week. He's only had three DNFs, two of which were by engine failure. But keep in mind that despite those engine failures, one of which was in this year's Daytona 500, he's been at the front constantly in his No. 20 Toyota.
He led more laps than anyone with 86 in the 500, which was a foreshadowing of what was to come.
But it goes beyond that. He's led 1,238 laps this season and has been in contention every week, be it on a superspeedway or a short track. JGR has been the flagship Toyota team since 2008, and coupled with Kenseth's experience—at 41, he's the most experienced driver at JGR—the No. 20 team has been an even bigger threat this year than the No. 48 of Jimmie Johnson.
Also, looking at the next nine races, the No. 20 crew has performed fantastically at those same tracks earlier in the season with the exception of Homestead. At Loudon earlier this summer he finished ninth after leading 33 laps. At Dover he started fourth and led 29 laps before blowing up and finishing 40th.
He won at Kansas earlier this year, and considering his performances on the 1.5-mile tracks this season he's bound to sweep it again. He led 112 laps at Charlotte and absolutely dominated Talladega by leading 142 laps. He led 96 laps at Martinsville, finished 12th at Texas and seventh at Phoenix.
Although not all the finishes were great, especially compared to teammate Busch's performances at some of the tracks, almost every performance was stellar to one degree or another. We're seeing a dominant Kenseth, one that is starting to gain a psychological advantage comparable to Johnson's.
The pairing of Jason Ratcliff and Kenseth is a match made in heaven, and the No. 20 car hasn't been this good since Tony Stewart's early years in the car. Money bet on Kenseth winning the championship more than likely won't be wasted.
Speaking of Busch, NASCAR's "Wild Thing," I wouldn't count him out. He's reminiscent of a young Darrell Waltrip, trash-talk and all. But strangely enough, the Las Vegas native hasn't been as brash as he has been in earlier years, back when wrecking other people under the caution and flipping off officials were to be expected.
He has actually been silent this season, which is unheard of for the driver of the No. 18 Toyota.
Busch has only won at one of the tracks this season that will be in the Chase when he won April's NRA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. But he has won at five of the nine tracks left this season, and has done well at some of the others, such as a fifth at Martinsville earlier this season, and looked to have one of the strongest cars at Charlotte before his engine detonated thanks to a camera cable snapping and falling onto the track.
Busch has had one of his best seasons in years, and this looks to be one of the best Chase openings he has had. He has only won four times, but with 1,169 laps led this year he has been just as much of a contender as Kenseth.
His performance at Texas under the guidance of crew chief Dave Rogers where he won the pole and led 171 laps on the way to Victory Lane is typical Busch, and performances like that by Busch could be a true challenge to Kenseth.
One major difference between the two is that while Kenseth is usually a smart, thinking driver Busch is willing to take the needed risks to make the most of his race. It has gotten him in trouble, but he has popped his fair share of champagne bottles because of those risks.
But then again, in what is easily Kenseth's best Sprint Cup season ever, he has just been good. He has kept his nose out of trouble and has been focused on posting results, and he hasn't failed.
Ultimately, although Busch is an excellent driver who is deserving of a championship, I don't think he'll be able to maintain his focus. Like Kevin Harvick, a driver who wears his heart on his sleeve doesn't have the focus necessary to seal the deal and become a champion.
I'm still expecting him to snap and go off on some hapless driver or his crew. Dissent in the team can break a season.
Kenseth has won a title, however, and knows what it takes to be a champion. Now that he's faced with amazing equipment, he is now able to focus on doing his job now that it has been made a lot easier. He is the best bet at winning the championship this year.
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