With this year’s disappointment, Matt Kenseth will miss the first Chase for the Sprint Cup of his career. Dating back to the format’s creation in 2004, Kenseth had always been a participant, one of only two drivers to make that claim (Jimmie Johnson was the other).
This year, however, Kenseth will be an also-ran, fighting with Kyle Busch for 13th place and missing the banquet at the end of the year.
Things started off so promising for Kenseth, the winner of the first two races of the season. After taking the Daytona 500 in rain-shortened fashion, people wondered whether or not the win was a fluke; Kenseth responded by winning the next race in Fontana. The Fox commentary booth declared that Kenseth was no fluke this year. It was the best of times for the DeWalt team.
Then, at Las Vegas, the wheels fell off, or, more accurately, the engine blew on the first lap. Kenseth finished last.
From there, he’s had a mediocre season. His last top 5 came at Dover, 13 races ago. He’s only had three top 10 finishes since then, and two of those were only 10th place finishes. When Kenseth told ABC that his team wasn’t running well enough to be a factor in the Chase if they had even made it, he really wasn’t kidding.
At Richmond, with his Chase spot on the line, Kenseth needed to have a strong run. He responded by qualifying 28th, accidentally pulling into Michael Waltrip’s pit stall instead of his own, and finishing 25th. Not the kind of run you’d hope to see from a driver trying to protect his playoff position.
Even worse, Busch and Brian Vickers, his greatest competition for 12th place and the final playoff spot, both posted fantastic finishes, winding up fifth and seventh respectively. Vickers wound up edging Busch for 12th by eight points.
Combine that with an uncertain sponsorship situation for next year, with DeWalt leaving the sport and Crown Royal only covering half the races, and it’s been the worst of times for Kenseth as of late.
It only seems fair, though, that Kenseth would miss a Chase eventually, when it’s his normal practice of racking up top 10s instead of victories that caused the advent of the format in the first place. Consider 2003, the last season under the old points format, where Kenseth won one race, Las Vegas, and drove away to the title on the strength of 25 top 10s. Ryan Newman had eight wins that year and finished sixth overall.
From here, it’s obvious that Kenseth can go nowhere but up. Without the pressure of contending for a championship, the 17 team can take some risks over the next few months that championship contenders don’t have the luxury of taking. They can use these final ten races as a test session for next year, in hopes of getting back to the Chase for 2010. If they can win a few races, too, next year’s sponsorship situation might be a lot less murky.
When it comes down to the bottom line, however, everybody knows Kenseth’s talent. He can win races, and he can rebound. After this year’s disappointment, look for an improved Matt Kenseth in 2010.