|Photo: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images|
Seven days later, he stood in Victory Lane at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the first time in his NASCAR career, in firm command of a championship drive that now may be just eight weeks from completion.
"To me, a win at Loudon is more than a stretch,” said Kenseth. “It’s more than a dream, because it's probably one of my worst (tracks). That just shows you how good this whole team is.
"You never go to the track and hope to just get through a weekend," said Kenseth, who now leads NHMS runner up Kyle Busch by 14 points and five-time champ Jimmie Johnson by 18 in the battle for the 2013 championship. “But if I had to pick from all the races, this is probably the one that I had more anxiety over. I was a little worried about this weekend… because it's been a tough track for me. We had a pretty good car in the spring, and I messed it up.
“I really feel like I'm the weak link here,” he said. “It's tough to pass (and) it's easy to get shuffled back on a restart and not get a good finish."
Crew chief Jason Ratcliff begged to differ, saying, “Matt doesn't give himself nearly enough credit. Restarts are key here, especially when you know most of the guys are going to have either old left-side tires or old right-side tires. It makes it difficult to get going.
"His restarts were exceptional today," said Ratcliff, "and I think that's one of the keys that got us the victory."
Kenseth’s five regular-season victories were a 2013 series best. And now, with back-to-back wins to start the Chase, he and his Joe Gibbs Racing team have served notice – loud and clear – that they are the team to beat for the championship.
His Loudon victory also portends well for the future. The New Hampshire oval is similar in layout to Phoenix International Raceway, site of the season’s penultimate race and a track where he has managed just one win in 22 career Sprint Cup starts. The Wisconsin native has always thrived on 1.5-mile ovals -- which comprise exactly half of the remaining schedule – and with flat one-milers now on his personal win list, there may be nothing left to keep him from a second career Sprint Cup crown.
There are still challengers for the title, however.
Shrugging off his reputation as a perennial Chase fizzler, Busch has raced to runner-up finishes behind Kenseth in each of the last two weeks. In marked contrast to seasons past, when mechanical failures and petty distractions have sidelined his effort, the M&Ms Toyota driver seems focused on the big picture this time around.
"I've said for years that if I could finish second in every Chase race, I'd take it and win a championship," said Busch Sunday. "To win a Chase race doesn't mean anything. It's all about the championship.
“We’re off to a fast start,” smiled Busch, “but somebody else is faster."
Johnson is also not about to concede defeat with eight races still to run.
"To open with a five-four (finish) is great, but a one-one like Matt's had is obviously a lot better," he said. "But we're in a good spot. We're not giving up too many points and we're going to one of my best race tracks next week at Dover."
It’s not over yet, but with two races in the book, Kenseth stands tallest of all.
"I'm thankful to be part of this group," said Kenseth Sunday, celebrating in Victory Lane after his 500th career Sprint Cup Series start. "It honestly doesn't seem real that we won today."