Coming out of Pocono Raceway last Sunday, Matt Kenseth has taken over the NASCAR Sprint Cup points lead from teammate Greg Biffle.
To make things even better, we are at a track this weekend that Kenseth dominates at. I promise you, knowing Kenseth as well as I do, he is downplaying being the points leader.
That’s actually a pretty good idea because the focus over at Roush Fenway Racing should be on how do teams collectively start winning races. That group knows how to be consistent. They’ve been doing that for two years. Unfortunately, that hasn’t translated into visits to Victory Lane as much as the organization had hoped nor to winning championships yet.
Just think about what Roush Fenway suffered through in November last year at Homestead. One of its drivers, Carl Edwards, finishes in a tie for the season-ending points, but loses the championship because Tony Stewart had many more wins than Edwards. Remember, just a finish of one spot higher in a Chase for the Sprint Cup race and we would be talking about Edwards as our defending champion, not Stewart.
Last year was a wake-up call to every owner, driver, crew chief and team member that NASCAR is slowly and finally, I might add, evolving back to putting the emphasis on winning. Car owner Jack Roush is a competitor in everything he does. So if the goal is Victory Lane and championships, then that’s what he is going to focus on.
Roush Fenway has one less Cup team this year because of funding. I think having only three teams to focus on has helped it. Kenseth won his second Daytona 500. Biffle has led the series points for a very long time. All this is a positive while Edwards is struggling a bit. Just imagine how strong the teams will be when Edwards begins to hit his stride. To me, it’s one of those excellent examples of where less in 2012 is better than more in 2011.
If our fans and our sport learned nothing else last year, it’s “if you can make the Chase, then anyone has a chance.” You all know the storyline. Stewart hangs on by his fingernails to make the Chase. He gets out of his car at Richmond, which was the last regular-season race before the Chase started, and tells the media he and his team probably don’t deserve to be there. He takes it a step further saying they are taking up a spot in the Chase for another more-deserving team.
Then what happens? Stewart goes out and wins five of the 10 Chase races. He ends in a points tie with Edwards, but because of all his wins, Stewart joins some very elite company — with names like Pearson, Waltrip, etc. — as a three-time NASCAR Cup champion.
Any time the owner, who also happens to be the driver, says the team isn't worthy, but then when the smoke clears — pun intended — is the champion, well that is the stuff of legend. That’s also a lesson to everyone else in the garage area, and if you don’t learn from what happened in the 2011 Chase, then shame on you.
What Stewart did has shown everyone that Step 1 is just get me into the Chase. Step 2 then becomes getting hot and winning races in the Chase. I think that’s the most important storyline we are going to be following in these next 12 races. It’s going to be who gets hot and gets himself into this year's Chase.
Let’s face it, this sport is hard on everybody. We’ve seen guys come into the Chase before red hot and then proceed to fall on their faces because they were used up. They had put it out there on the line just to get in, but then when the Chase started, they had nothing left in the tank. Stewart showed everyone a different option last year.
These three months left until the Chase starts are going to be grueling. If you are one of those drivers and teams that are borderline right now in making the Chase, then the stress is going to be sky high on trying to make it in. Throw in on top of that all the different places they will be running off to for testing in preparation for races. That’s a lot of time away from home and on the road that simply burns people to the ground.
So now is the stretch where we are going to find out who is really ready to step up. We are going to find out who has the best plan in place from the offseason to maximize what he has while at the same time not burning people out.