How about a quick NASCAR quiz?
What do Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth all have in common?
Come on…this is an easy one.
They were all race winners in 2013. Johnson (six), Gordon (one) and Kenseth (a series-high seven).
This year, they all have one other thing in common. Do you know what that is?
Answer: Their names do not appear on the list of seven NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race winners in 2014.
By the seventh race of the season in 2013, Matt Kenseth had already won at Las Vegas and Kansas (which was earlier last year and this season swaps weekends with Darlington). When the circuit did make it to Darlington three weeks later, Kenseth scored his third win of the season.
However, the Wisconsin native remains winless in 2014, a season that qualifies as different by any measure. Seven different drivers have been to victory lane, yet those drivers who have a consistent record of winning, remain winless.
Why is that, Matt Kenseth?
“I think whenever you throw a pretty big rules change at everybody some people are going to pick up on it sooner than others,” said Kenseth in a pre-race interview. “I think it always spreads the field out a little bit because some guys are going to hit it and some guys are going to miss it and I think that always creates passing and mixes the field up and makes the racing more interesting in my mind.”
Foremost among the rules changes that Kenseth refers to is the ride-height rule, which this year has rewritten the “black book” of setups crew chiefs use on race weekends. Prior to the rule change, NASCAR mandated a minimum height be met, both at the front and the rear and measured at a specific point on the car. This was usually accomplished by changing suspension parts (primarily springs) to meet the required ride height.
For 2014, that minimum ride height is no longer being enforced. This has opened the door for engineers and crew chiefs to experiment with differing spring strengths. Such changes affect how fast a car will be at most race tracks and more importantly, at all tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit, they help determine how comfortable the driver is when the car is at speed. And speeds this year are up at every track the series has raced at.
If all this technical stuff has you lost, simply put, the new rules will eventually be beneficial to every team. It’s just finding that new sweet spot for the driver that will take some time. Some teams, as Kenseth mentions, have found that spot. Others, like his Jason Ratcliff-led Joe Gibbs Racing squad, are still searching.
The last time, in recent memory, that teams had difficulty with finding that sweet spot in suspension setups was nearly a decade ago, when teams had started using very soft springs in the front suspension. It was called “coil-bound” suspension back then and some of the sport’s biggest names struggled until their comfort level and their engineer and crew chiefs setups met at the same place.
Darlington, this weekend, could be the place where the new rules and the driver’s comfort zone come together for this team. It’s not like they’re hitting the panic button yet. But is this team paying close attention to the points, just in case they don’t win a race? (Kenseth sits in second behind points-leader Jeff Gordon, who is also winless this season.)
Kenseth plays it pretty cool when it comes to talking about points.
“I don’t know about close attention, you always kind of know where you’re at once the week is over you maybe glance at the standings,” he said. “They always park in order of points so when you show up parked the next week you kind of know where you’re at. That really hasn’t changed.
“I don’t know. I think maybe when you get closer to the 26 (race) cutoff then you probably study it a little more and see where everybody is and who’s in and who’s out and that kind of thing. You just don’t really know how it’s going to turn out.”
Kenseth, whose name appears on Darlington’s Wall of Winners, left the egg-shaped track with the winner’s trophy last year. It could happen again this Saturday. With just that one win in 20 attempts, his nine top 10s and one pole stand out and make this team a good pick to be winner number eight of eight.
“I always feel like the Southern 500 is one of the biggest races of the year—certainly it was right up there towards the top of my list of tracks I wanted to win at that I never won at before last year,” he said. “It was a big week for us and it was really, really cool to be able to finally win the Southern 500 for sure.”
The Southern 500 was traditionally a hot and muggy Labor Day race. Then it became a cool, spring, night-before-Mother’s Day race for several years. This year, Kansas Speedway gets the May holiday weekend and Darlington runs its race, still under the lights, but a month earlier.
“It doesn’t change how you’re going to drive it at all,” Kenseth added. “Conditions are a little hard to predict just because we only come there once a year. With the weather forecast being decent…it’s supposed to be pretty warm the next couple days so I think that’s good. I think that will be good for the fans and I think that will probably be good for the racing too.”
That quiz at the start? Next time, there’s likely to be one name missing.
*All quotes in this column are taken from official team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.