What a dominating performance we got from Matt Kenseth Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway. Not only was it Matt's 35th win, but he's won three out of the last six races. It's his fourth win this season, tying him with Jimmie Johnson and teammate Kyle Busch for the most wins in 2015. The man led 352 of the 400 laps Saturday night. The last time he dominated a race like that was 10 years ago at Bristol when he won by leading 415 laps.
This was Joe Gibbs Racing's 11th win so far this season. This is an organization that only won two races last year, so they have really turned things around. If the news couldn't get any better, they have now won seven out of the last nine races we've run. Saturday night Matt won and teammate Kyle finished second. Of course the best news of all, which everyone already knows, they have all four of the team's cars starting the Chase. Yes, 25 percent of the 16-car Chase field is made of Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas.
I'll be honest, Saturday night wasn't the most exciting race I've ever witnessed. There were only 13 lead changes shared by only four drivers. There were only six cautions, so I wouldn't call it the most dramatic race we seen at Richmond. The reality is how can it be when you have a driver leading 352 laps, right?
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Probably the biggest excitement of the night came with the controversy over the last restart of the race. We saw on a couple previous restarts earlier in the evening that's where the tension was, so when this last rolled around, myself and everyone else including Matt figured he needed to "get gone," if he wanted to finish off his dominating performance in Victory Circle.
Did Matt fudge a little bit and go a wee bit early? I'd have to say maybe on that one. I think it was so close that NASCAR did what most officials would do and gave the call to the driver. I think it caught most everyone by surprise, especially Joey Logano in that No. 22 car. Team owner Roger Penske was very upset at the no call by NASCAR.
So, three guys enter the Chase with four wins, but Jimmie is seeded in first simply because he had more second place finishes this year than either Kyle or Matt. They are all tied for first though, based on the bonus points for the four wins. Believe it or not, but Jimmie has now been in all 12 of the Chase formats. He's the only driver that has been in the them all. The irony there is while he's been in all 12, Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard are entering their first Chase.
There are five of the 16 Chase drivers that didn't win a race in the regular season -- Jamie, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Paul and Clint Bowyer. They all will be trying to replicate what Newman did last year in the Chase. Ryan finished second overall last year and never won a race. It took eventual champion Kevin Harvick winning at Homestead-Miami Speedway, our last race of the year, to keep Ryan from winning the 2014 championship without a victory. So, there definitely is hope for those five drivers and teams with Newman as their example from last year.
My opinion about all that has never wavered. If you stumble into the Chase, you are probably going to stumble right on back out. If you aren't running up front and consistent every week, yet make the Chase, that doesn't mean there's some magic wand you can wave and bibbity boppity boo, you are now a major player. The only time we've see that happen, was 2011 when Tony Stewart stumbled into the Chase, found something and then won five out of 10 races, earning his third Sprint Cup championship.
Just because you are one of the 16 cars in the Chase, it doesn't fix your problems. Actually, it magnifies them as the spotlight shines a lot brighter and hotter on the teams in the Chase. Now you are under microscope, so if you have a bad pit crew it's going to show up. If your car doesn't have the speed or doesn't handle great, it's going to show up. It's not just you and 42 others anymore. For the next 10 weeks it's all about you and the other 15 Chase drivers.
I honestly don't think you are going to see anything different these next 10 races that you haven't seen these last 10 races. It's going to be Joe Gibb's Toyotas versus Penske's Fords. The wildcard this year, for the first time in a very long time, is Hendrick Motorsports. They are the ones that have me scratching my head. It's been said time and time again that these 10 Chase races have always been Jimmie Johnson's best tracks.
They didn't have a bad night Saturday in Richmond. They had three of their four cars finish in the top 10, but they aren't the front-runners like we've seen in the past. Here's a stunning statistic. Since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the July Daytona race, Hendrick Motorsports have only led seven laps. Now let's take that a step further, Jimmie and Dale Jr. haven't led a single lap since Daytona, so they simply haven't had the speed or consistency of the other front runners.
I'm also concerned about Kevin Harvick heading into the Chase. It's been a very long time since he's won a race. Sure he had 18 top-five finishes out of the first 26 races of the season, but Saturday night the best he could muster was a 14th-place finish. So, that had me a little concerned Saturday night because you want to enter the Chase with momentum on your side not finishing a lap down in 14th.
The reality though is the No. 4 Chevrolet has been a dominant car for the last year and a half. Kevin is our defending series champion and I won't be the least surprised if he doesn't repeat. That car has always had plenty of speed, so I'm sure crew chief Rodney Childers and his crowd will give Kevin a great car each and every week for these next 10 races.
I do want to take a moment and give a tip of the hat to Aric Almirola and crew chief Trent Owens on their performance Saturday night. There was a lot on the line with a remote possibility of them making their second consecutive Chase. The car ran well all night long and they finished fourth, however it just wasn't enough to be in the top 16 at the end.
But what I hope they learned, and what others should take note of, is what they had said during their interviews. Aric said he drove his heart out. Trent said they stayed up all night working on the setup to make it just right. This is why some teams are better than others and should be a lesson for others in the garage.
They did it for that race. They need to do it for all the races. That's the approach Gibbs, Hendrick, Stewart-Haas and Team Penske take each week. This week's race is the most important race of the season. Then next week when it rolls around, that becomes the most important race of the season. Every race is important and that's what makes those front-runners your championship contenders year-in and year-out.
What really is a huge surprise, but really shouldn't be if you've watched their performance, but this is the first time in the history of the Chase format that there won't be at least one Roush Fenway Racing entry. The performance just hasn't been there. They've been saying for the last couple years that they were going to make changes to improve, but it's yet to happen. Obviously it has to be something internal they do as a company, because you only have to look over to Team Penske to see it's not the cars or the engines. I'm not telling you anything they don't already know over there, but missing the Chase is a pretty big milestone, but unfortunately not a good one for the Roush camp.
So, we go into the Chase starting at Chicagoland Speedway this weekend. Ten races with elimination rounds that all boils down to four drivers at Homestead for a chance to win it all. Will the Hendrick cars rebound and get back in the hunt? Will the Gibbs cars continue to dominate? Will Team Penske and the Stewart-Haas cars be able to stop the Gibbs onslaught? All these questions will be answered in the next 10 weeks and you never know what could happen. Again, just look at the huge surprise we got in 2011 with Tony Stewart.