If you are a person who doesn't like NASCAR's Chase for the Championship, and instead prefer the traditional method—where there is no points reset after 26 races, and at the end of the season the driver who has accumulated the most points over the span of all 36 races is declared the champion—there can really only be one person for you to blame.
That person is Matt Kenseth.
While NASCAR claims that it had been thinking about tweaking its points system, and tinkering with the way its champion would be crowned, for years, there are many still, that believe the main reason that the Chase was implemented was because of the way Kenseth won the Winston Cup in 2003.
That season, Kenseth won the championship, not by pulling into victory lane week after week, but by staying out of trouble and consistently putting up top 10 finishes. His 25 top 10 finishes in 2003 were three more than anyone else.
There were many people that felt this was no way to win a championship. Kenseth won just a single race that season, while Ryan Newman led the series with eight victories, but still only managed to finish sixth in the season ending points.
Even Kurt Busch, Kenseth's Roush Racing teammate, won on four occasions, but still, he could only muster an 11th place points finish.
The big complaint of some, was that not enough emphasis was being put on winning races, and that winning should be rewarded more than consistency on a week to week basis. And then in 2004 a race win was awarded more points, and this coincided with the birth of the Chase for the Championship.
Now, entering the eighth season since Kenseth won his first and only NASCAR championship, I think he is poised to win the championship for the second time. This time, under the format that some say he is responsible for.
Let the nay sayers scoff all they want, but I think all signs point to a very strong season for Kenseth in 2011. As the 2010 was winding down the No. 17 team was just starting to hit their stride. And now, having had some time to build chemistry between Kenseth, and crew chief Jimmy Fennig this team should have no problem finally making a return to victory lane, and once again being a challenger to the throne currently occupied by Jimmie Johnson.
Although Kenseth failed to win a race in 2010, and has gone nearly two full years since the last time he was in victory lane in the Cup Series, I don't think that will be an issue going forward. If there is such a thing as momentum, Kenseth and the No. 17 bunch have some.
He ended the season fifth in the points, and in his final six races, his worst finish was 16th. This included a second place run at Texas, and a race at Talladega where he was one of the strongest cars all day long.
There is also confidence in Roush Racing as a whole. After failing to win a single race in 2009, and then struggling to find victory lane through the early parts of 2010, the team pulled things together and got back into winning form.
Starting with teammate Greg Biffle's win in Pocono in late July, Roush Racing won four of the season's final 15 events, two each by Biffle and Carl Edwards. So while Kenseth himself didn't win in 2010, with the success of the team back to the level that is normally expected of them, don't expect Kenseth's winless draught to carry on for much longer.
Kenseth is still one of the more consistent drivers in the series. His 12.8 average finish in 2010 was the fourth best among drivers who ran the full season. And with an average starting spot of 19.4, that means that Kenseth averaged a gain of roughly seven spots per race. Only Kevin Harvick and Travis Kvapil averaged higher.
On top of his consistency, is his ability to not only finish races, but finish them on or near the lead lap. Kenseth was one of only two drivers in 2010 to be running at the finish of every race. Further more, of the 10,778 laps run in the Sprint Cup Series this past season, Kenseth only failed to finish eight of them. Only two other drivers were within 100 laps of Kenseth's total.
Call it a bold prediction, call it a gut feeling, call it sheer stupidity—whatever you want to call it, I see no reason to think that Matt Kenseth won't be the Sprint Cup champion in 2011. With Roush Racing seemingly back on track, and Kenseth's new found team chemistry, as well as his consistency as a driver, I fully expect to see him back in victory lane very early in the coming season.
And thanks to him and his 2003 championship run, those wins that he will soon be racking up are now worth more points as he heads into the Chase. Once in the Chase, Kenseth showed in 2010 that he is still capable of making a run, because consistently running in the top 5 and top 10 is the only way to win the Chase.
And as we all know by now, consistency is one of the many strong points of Matt Kenseth.
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