Entering the second round in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Matt Kenseth will celebrate a career milestone this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Kenseth is expected to make his 500th start in NASCAR's premier series. His Cup debut came on Sept. 20, 1998 at Dover, finishing sixth. He substituted for Bill Elliott so Elliott could attend his father's funeral. Kenseth made five more Cup starts in 1999 before his rookie season in 2000.
"All this really means is that I'm old," Kenseth jokingly said. "I'm proud having 500 starts. I remember making my first one, and I wasn't sure if I was going to even be able to make a second one. It's a very tough business, so I feel very fortunate to have been with such great people, and to have driven such great cars and had fantastic sponsors throughout my career to be able to still be in this sport and competitive after this many seasons."
Kenseth kicked off the Chase last Sunday with a victory at Chicagoland, a race delayed more than six hours due to rain. He currently holds an eight-point lead over Kyle Busch, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, and an 11-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson.
In his first season with JGR, Kenseth has scored a series-leading and career- high six victories. He's attempting to win his second Cup championship. His first title came in 2003.
After winning at Chicagoland, Kenseth has established himself as the Chase favorite. He will become the series champion if history repeats itself. The winner at Chicagoland, the first race in the Chase, went on to capture the title the previous two years (Tony Stewart in 2011 and Brad Keselowski in 2012).
"I think it's too early to really pick favorites," Kenseth said. "I think there's a ton of competition. When you look at the finishing position last Sunday, 10 of the top-12 were all drivers in the Chase."
Kenseth has struggled somewhat at New Hampshire in the past, recording just two top-10 finishes in his last 11 races here. His average finish over that span has been 18.6. He did finish ninth after leading 33 laps in his first race with JGR at this track in July. Kenseth's best finish at New Hampshire is second, which came in September 2004.
Busch finished second at Chicagoland. He also finished in the runner-up spot at New Hampshire earlier this season.
"There's still nine more weeks - nine long weeks to go," Busch said. "But I know this team is focused, and we'll try to have another good race at New Hampshire and keep up some positive momentum from last week."
Johnson has scored three wins and 16 top-10 finishes in his 23 starts at New Hampshire. He finished second here one year ago and placed sixth in the July race.
Kevin Harvick is presently fourth in points (-15), followed by Carl Edwards (-23) and Kurt Busch (-23). Busch, in his lone season with Furniture Row Racing before he moves over to Stewart-Haas Racing next year, finished fourth at Chicagoland.
"It's been an amazing ride, and to make the Chase with a single-car team was a nice accomplishment and something very gratifying, and now here we are one week into it and we have a nice top-5 finish," Busch said. "We need nine more of those along with a win. So I'm looking forward to the challenge. What keeps me even more hungry this year is that we haven't won yet, and I know we're capable of doing it, and here it is. The Chase, it's the most important time to win, so it would be great to see it all come together."
Busch won the inaugural Chase championship in 2004. His only win during the 10-race playoff stretch that year came at New Hampshire.
Forty-three teams are on the entry list for the Sylvania 300.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, Sept. 22. Race: Sylvania 300. Site: New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Track: 1.058-mile oval. Start time: 2 p.m. ET. Laps: 300. Miles: 317.4. 2012 Winner: Denny Hamlin. Television: ESPN. Radio: Performance Racing Network (PRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.