Why Are Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth Still Winless in 2014?

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Why Are Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth Still Winless in 2014?
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Johnson: "Hey, Matt, any ideas on how to win Sunday?" Kenseth: "I was just going to ask you the same question, Jimmie."

Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth combined to win over one-third of the races in the 2013 Sprint Cup season.

Johnson won six races last season en route to his sixth Sprint Cup championship, leaving him just one title away from tying NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most individual Cup championships won.

Kenseth, meanwhile, led all drivers with a series-high seven wins last season.

So, how is it that we enter the 12th race of the season Sunday in the Coca-Cola 600 and neither Johnson nor Kenseth has managed to reach Victory Lane even once thus far in 2014?

They're not the only winless drivers, either: Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Brian Vickers, Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer, Sprint All-Star Race winner Jamie McMurray and Tony Stewart are among those who have yet to reach the finish line first in 2014.

It's not like Johnson and Kenseth have forgotten to drive, let alone win.

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Johnson has one runner-up finish this season (Martinsville) and one third-place showing (Darlington)—part of three top-five and just six top-10 finishes to date. But he has also struggled, with four finishes of 20th or worse: 24th (Fontana), 25th (Texas), 32nd (Richmond) and 23rd (Talladega).

He's coming off a ninth-place showing two weeks ago at Kansas, where, heck, even Danica Patrick finished higher than him.

Kenseth has been exceptional, with three top-fives and eight top-10 finishes and just one finish worse than 13th thus far this season (37th, Talladega).

So, why have two drivers who have combined for 97 career Sprint Cup wins between them (Johnson 66, Kenseth 31) and seven championships (Johnson six, Kenseth one) been unable to find Victory Lane in 2014?

The answer may be utterly simplistic: They just haven't been able to be in the right place at the right time.

In other words, they haven't been able to seal the deal.

The reason for Kenseth's shortcoming is pretty clear: Toyota drivers have won just two of the first 11 races, with those two wins coming from Kenseth's Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.

As for Johnson, he became the first Hendrick Motorsports driver to earn a pole this season when he qualified No. 1 Thursday for the Coca-Cola 600, but he also has watched HMS teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon win while he hasn't.

There's one other element that comes into play as to why Kenseth and Johnson haven't won yet. With NASCAR's changes and revisions to the Chase for the Sprint Cup format this season—expanding the field to 16 drivers and putting emphasis on wins to qualify for the Chase—competing drivers have ratcheted up their performance because of the sense of urgency to win to make the playoffs.

As a result, many of Johnson and Kenseth's fans are stressing—perhaps far too soon and far too unnecessarily—because they're worried their favorite driver won't make the Chase.

One of the biggest reasons why there is so much concern among Johnson and Kenseth fans is what happened in 2011. To refresh your memory, Tony Stewart failed to win even one race during the first 26 races and barely qualified for the Chase. But once the playoffs began, he was a man possessed, winning five of the 10 Chase races to eventually capture his third career Cup championship.

However, had the new Chase format been in place back in '11, Stewart wouldn't have won the championship. Heck, he wouldn't have even qualified for the Chase.

Will Schneekloth/Getty Images

So it's understandable why Johnson and Kenseth's fans are starting to freak out.

Fret not, though, there's plenty of time left for Kenseth and Johnson to make it. Including Sunday, there are 15 races remaining to win at least one race to make the Chase.

Here's one other thing to consider as well: There have been nine race winners thus far in the first 11 races. If seven more currently winless drivers earn a victory, Johnson and Kenseth will not make the Chase. But the odds of that happening are unlikely. Rather, you're likely to see more multiple-race winners from this point on.

In other words, if those drivers who already have one win in 2014—like Earnhardt Jr., the two Busch brothers and Gordon—win a second or third race, that actually will benefit Johnson and Kenseth.

Colin E. Braley/Associated Press

For example, let's say 13 drivers have wins heading into the Chase. That leaves three positions open for drivers without wins but with the most points of winless drivers.

Drivers like Johnson and Kenseth.

Honestly, those who are worrying about Johnson and Kenseth missing the Chase are fretting far too soon. Plus, with some of the tracks coming up that favor Johnson and Kenseth—places like Michigan, Pocono, New Hampshire, Dover and Indianapolis—there's much adieu about nothing.

Johnson and Kenseth are going to be fine. They're going to make the Chase. And they'll both have a good chance at ultimately winning the championship.

 

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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