Matt Kenseth has an opportunity to make history in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship this weekend at Dover International Speedway.
After winning at Chicagoland and New Hampshire, Kenseth will try to become the first competitor to start the Chase with three consecutive victories. Two other drivers have begun the playoffs with back-to-back wins: Greg Biffle in 2008 and Tony Stewart in 2011.
Biffle won at New Hampshire and Dover and then finished third at Kansas (the third race in '08 Chase) before he faded from there, finishing third in the point standings. Two years ago, Stewart took the checkered flag at Chicagoland and New Hampshire but lost momentum by finishing 25th at Dover and then 15th at Kansas. He bounced back with six straight top-10 finishes, including three victories. Stewart ended the season in a points tie with Carl Edwards but captured the title by virtue of his five wins for the year compared to only one for Edwards.
Heading into Dover, Kenseth holds a 14-point lead over Kyle Busch, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, and an 18-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson. Even though Kenseth is 2 for 2 in the Chase, there are still eight races to go. And anything can happen from Dover to the season-finale in Homestead, Fla.
"My outlook is really not any different, honestly," Kenseth said. "I know it's kind of cliche, but it really is one week at a time, especially right now. If you get down toward the end and you're lucky enough to have a lead or something, maybe you start looking at that more or thinking about it more. But eight weeks of racing is a lot of racing, and in this system, one bad finish and you're behind."
When the Sprint Cup Series last ran at Dover in June, Kenseth started fourth and led 29 laps before he suffered engine failure shortly before the halfway point. He finished a season-worst 40th. One year ago, Kenseth placed 35th here and fell to last in Chase standings. He trailed Brad Keselowski by 72 points at the time.
After spending 13 full seasons with Roush Fenway Racing in Sprint Cup, Kenseth is in his first year as driver of the No. 20 Toyota for JGR. He has scored a series-leading and career-high seven wins this season. Kenseth has won back- to-back races in Cup four times during his career (2004, '06, '09 and '13) but has never posted three straight victories.
Kenseth has won at Dover twice (June 2006 and May 2011).
Busch is off to his best start in the Chase after finishing runner-up to Kenseth at Chicagoland and New Hampshire. He's also a two-time race winner at Dover (June 2008 and May 2010).
"I've said it for years - if I could finish second in every single Chase race, I'd take it and win a championship over winning a single Chase race that doesn't mean as much as a championship would," Busch said. "It's all about the prize at the end. It's only two races, and you certainly would like to get off to a good start, but it's early."
In last year's Chase race at Dover, Busch led 302 of 400 laps but ended up finishing seventh after he was forced to pit for fuel with 10 laps to go. Keselowski conserved enough gas late in the race and took over the top spot when Busch pitted. He won the race and went on to capture the Sprint Cup championship.
Busch led the most laps in this year's spring race at Dover with 150 but faded in the late-stages to finish fourth.
Johnson has won at Dover seven times, which puts him in a tie with Bobby Allison and Richard Petty for most victories here. Johnson was on the way to posting his record-eighth win at this track in June, but after a restart with 19 laps remaining, NASCAR penalized him for jumping the restart. He had passed Juan Pablo Montoya for the lead. The Hendrick Motorsports driver and five-time series champion wound up finishing 17th. Tony Stewart won the race after he grabbed the top spot from Montoya with three laps to go.
"We were close there last time, led a bunch of laps and were in position there toward the end for a win," Johnson said. "Unfortunately, we got penalized on that final restart and weren't able to pull it off. I think we've clarified things a little bit with the new restart rule and are headed in the right direction. This team has had a consistent start to the Chase, and I expect more of the same this weekend in Dover."
Johnson has placed fourth and fifth in the first two Chase races. He began last year's playoffs with second-place finishes at Chicagoland and New Hampshire but ended the season third in points (-40). He finished 32nd at Phoenix and 36th at Homestead.
Carl Edwards comes to Dover fourth in points (-36), followed by Biffle (-38), Kevin Harvick (-39), Kurt Busch (-40) and Jeff Gordon (-42).
Ninth through 13th are: Ryan Newman (-47), Clint Bowyer (-48), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-62), Joey Logano (-69) and Kasey Kahne (-71).
Forty-three teams are on the preliminary entry list for the AAA 400.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, Sept. 29. Race: AAA 400. Site: Dover International Speedway. Track: 1-mile oval. Start time: 2 p.m. ET. Laps: 400. Miles: 400. 2012 Winner: Brad Keselowski. Television: ESPN. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.