With the opening race of the 2015 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup still days away, it seems clear that three-quarters of the title contenders already have some catching up to do.
Joe Gibbs Racing reasserted its dominance yet again Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, with Matt Kenseth claiming a dominant victory and all three of his teammates finishing in the Top-11. Only once in Kenseth’s 18-year Sprint Cup Series career has he led more than the 352 laps he led Saturday night, and a late-race debris caution added only a smattering of uncertainty to the verdict, before the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota motored away to Victory Lane.
The 35th victory of Kenseth’s Sprint Cup career came on a track where JGR has struggled in the past. This spring, Kenseth was the only Gibbs Toyota to finish in the Top-10 there, prompting a post-race tongue lashing by team owner Joe Gibbs that many credit for the team’s dramatic second-half turnaround.
“Coach yelled at us after the spring race,” admitted Kenseth Saturday, “and everybody paid attention to that. This track has been tough for us, (but) JGR has worked really hard on their short track stuff.”
Saturday’s win was Kenseth’s third in the last six races and JGR’s eighth in the last 11 events. Only Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (Daytona) and Joey Logano (Watkins Glen/Bristol) have managed to break Gibbs’ recent stranglehold on Victory Lane, and Saturday night’s across-the-board dominance gave little indication of that changing, anytime soon.
Kenseth begins the 10-race Chase tied with teammate Kyle Busch and six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson at the top of the point parade. Stablemates Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards are just six and nine points behind, respectively; making JGR the only operation in NASCAR to place four drivers in the championship field. And after a thoroughly dominant Saturday night in Richmond, the team heads to Chicagoland with more than their fair share of momentum.
“This was a really important race for us,” admitted Kenseth Saturday. “In the championship battle, I know it doesn’t have a lot implications, but it was real important for us as a company to run good here.”
“Good” may be a bit of an understatement, especially when the high-flying Gibbs teams are measured against their Chase competition.
Johnson is uncharacteristically winless since Dover in late May. While displaying uncanny consistency – finishing outside the Top-10 Saturday night for only the fourth time this season – defending champion Kevin Harvick hasn’t cracked Victory Lane since Las Vegas in early March, a span of 19 races. Perennial title contender Hendrick Motorsports has led only seven laps since Daytona in early July, and Roush Fenway Racing failed to place a single driver in the Chase for the first time in history.
Presently, only Team Penske seems capable of slowing the Joe Gibbs roll for any length of time, and even Penske’s dynamic duo of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski has struggled to keep pace with the JGR juggernaut in recent weeks.
Kenseth, Busch, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards play second-fiddle to no driver lineup in NASCAR. In poker terms, Joe Gibbs has four aces in his hand and is ready to push “all in.” The team’s Toyota Camrys combine “win at any time” speed with the consistency needed to survive the next 10 weeks and race for a championship at Homestead Miami Speedway. Their over-the-wall pit crews have been the best in NASCAR for nearly two full seasons and show no sign of slowing, anytime soon.
That’s a tough combination to beat, and the competition knows it.
“You can’t be good every three weeks,” said Harvick of the upcoming title chase. “You’ve got to be good for 10 weeks. Hopefully, they’ll be peaky like they normally are, and we can capitalize on the momentum we’ve had through the last two years and do what we have to do.”
Kenseth concurred, saying, “You never know what's going to happen in these rounds. Every race is important. Every point is important. These are all big events, (and) it's so fun when you have a car that does what you want it to do.”
“I believe 100 percent in momentum,” said Kenseth’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff. “I’d say right now we’ve got a lot going into the Chase.”
No one is ready to hand Joe Gibbs Racing the Sprint Cup trophy just yet, and plenty of water will flow under the competitive bridge in the next 10 weeks. But unless something changes dramatically – and quickly -- JGR will be hard to guard in the 2015 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.