Matt Kenseth will have to keep pace with a routinely-dominant Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville Speedway.
There are many areas in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing where Matt Kenseth has a surefire mastery. The 2003 series champion makes consistency at the top levels of NASCAR look remarkably easy. He's emerged as a force on the restrictor-plate tracks and has a noted ability on the 1.5-mile speedways.
And this season, he's been incredibly strong at so many tracks, scoring a career-best seven race wins along the way.
But Martinsville Speedway—site of Sunday's ultra-important seventh race of the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup—has long eluded Kenseth's range of success.
Do you expect Matt Kenseth to contend for the Martinsville win?
Kenseth finished two laps down in 21st during his first race the paperclip-shaped short track back in 2000. Since then, through a span of 27 total career starts at Martinsville, Kenseth has checked off just three top-five finishes and eight top-10 runs.
Respectively, those numbers, when averaged over his total number of Martinsville starts, check in at 19 percent lower than his career average in top-10 finishes and 16 percent lower in top-five finishes.
Kenseth's best finish at Martinsville happened in 2002 when he finished second. It took him 10 more seasons to score top-five finish of No. 3 in 2012.
He's even mediocre among current Chase drivers at the track. Kenseth ranks ninth of 13 drivers in average running position over the track's last 17 races (16.9), boasts an average start of 18.4 good for 12th among Chase drivers and has just the sixth-best average finish (14.7).
Chase Chances Rely on Kenseth to Break Through
With a 20th-place finish at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, Kenseth lost his grip on the Sprint Cup points lead. He now trails Jimmie Johnson by four points—still a very small margin—but has the unfortunate task of trying to reel the five-time champion back in starting at a track where Johnson has been supremely dominant.
Johnson has driven to seven of the last 14 race wins at Martinsville and boasts an nearly obscene career average finish at the track of 5.3. He's finished outside the top-10 just three times and, in April, averaged a running position in the race of first place throughout the event.
Kenseth and Johnson have jarringly different records at the tiny Virginia track, NASCAR's oldest.
Johnson has converted 16 of his 23 Martinsville starts into top-five finishes, while Kenseth has had just three. Johnson has led 20.3 percent of the laps he's completed at Martinsville; Kenseth has led 1.3 percent. And Johnson, with his five championships, has a 29 percent higher rate of lead-lap finishes than Kenseth at the track.
Those numbers tell a story that Kenseth certainly knows: Johnson is really, really good at Martinsville, and Sunday's race may be more about holding serve than going for an ace. The only problem for Kenseth is that his track record shows an unusually strong performance will be needed in order to even keep pace with Johnson.
What Needs to Change for Kenseth at Martinsville
If one race is to be believed, however, things may be starting to turn around for Kenseth at the short track.
In April, Kenseth got his first taste of Joe Gibbs Racing equipment at the tiny track and immediately appeared to benefit from the different car setup than he was used to during his time at Roush Fenway Racing.
Kenseth led some 96 laps—some 70 more than any other one Martinsville race of his career—and had the look of a contender down the stretch. JGR, of course, has fielded the car that Denny Hamlin used to win four of the last 11 Cup events at the Virginia track.
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"We ran really great -- that's the best we ever ran at Martinsville and the best car I've ever had here by far," Kenseth said after the April race. "That part was all good. We just didn't get the finish, which is disappointing."
The finish was indeed underwhelming as Kenseth pulled in 14th while Johnson again strutted to victory, this time by more than a half of a second over Clint Bowyer.
"I thought we were pretty good until about lap 350," Kenseth said in April. "I think the track got a little tighter, and we got a little off. We could still hang in the top-five, but then we got shoved back to sixth or seventh on a restart, and then I just could not go anywhere on new tires."
Those late-race issues, combined with the strong car to start the race, provide a pretty nice launching point for Kenseth to rebound at the track where he's never won.
Much like April, Kenseth will need a good starting spot (he was eighth for the spring green flag), a steady approach and adjustments as the race wears on that keep his car stuck to the track. He'll also need to avoid run-ins like he had with Brian Vickers in 2011 that, ultimately, made the race more about payback and retribution than smartly running for championship points.
Doing so would keep the No. 20 from falling into the dangerous clutches of most restarts and improve his odds of avoiding the typical Martinsville traffic that both makes passing difficult and provides ample opportunity to wind up crashed in someone else's mess.
All told, it could score Kenseth a Martinsville top-five finish—it would be the 41-year-old's fourth ever—and preserve his chances to fight Jimmie Johnson for the 2013 Chase title.
In fact, preserve might just be the key word for Kenseth. With trouble for Johnson at Martinsville—a total rarity at the track—Kenseth could slingshot his way toward a sip of the championship champagne. But should that trouble for Johnson not materialize, a strong finish for Kenseth would keep those title hopes alive for at least another week.
In a 10-race playoff, that's all a driver can hope for.
Quotes used in this story obtained firsthand from NASCAR press conference/team transcripts.