LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — Matt Kenseth just might win a championship with a touch of dominance, not dullness.
Kenseth has firmly defended the style of his 2003 championship, stating his one-win season in the final year before NASCAR made the move to the playoff-style Chase format was as meaningful as all the titles collected by Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart.
He probably won’t have to justify anything about his Cup run this season. There are plenty of checkered flags.
Kenseth made it 2 for 2 in the Chase, holding off Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch to win Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
He followed his win in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship opener at Chicagoland with his series-high seventh victory of the season. Kenseth made his 500th career start and built a 14-point lead over Busch before the series shifts to Dover.
One win or seven, Kenseth will take a title any way he can.
“If you’re fortunate enough to win a championship, or another championship, I don’t think there’s a bad way to win it,” he said. “I know it still gets brought up because it was the last year without the Chase and we won once race. But I was real proud of what we did that year. It was tough to accomplish.”
Kenseth was paired with owner Jack Roush for more than a decade and won 22 races, a pair of Daytona 500s and the 2003 championship. He’s having a career year in his first season at JGR, obliterating his previous season best for wins — 5 in 2002.
“I don’t feel like I’m necessarily a better driver than what I was last year,” he said. “Certainly, things are different.”
Just a little bit.
His gamble to change teams has been a success, and Kenseth’s eyes glistened as tears rolled down his cheeks in Victory Lane. He reached for a big white towel to wipe them away.
Neither side could have expected this kind of run.
“We’ve known Matt for a long time but, in all reality, we wouldn’t have guessed seven wins,” team President J.D. Gibbs said.
Kenseth was anxious heading into New Hampshire because it had long been one of his worst tracks. He might have calmed down had he checked this season’s results from some of the other tracks where he traditionally struggled: Four of his seven wins in 2013 are at tracks where he was winless.
Kenseth and Busch made it a 1-2 finish for Joe Gibbs Racing and helped the organization win for the fifth time in the last seven races dating to Busch’s win at Watkins Glen in August. Kenseth won at Bristol, Busch took Atlanta and Kenseth won the last two.
Kenseth joins Greg Biffle (2008) and Tony Stewart (2011) as the only drivers to win the first two Chase races. Stewart went on to win the title.
Kenseth moves on in the No. 20 Toyota to Dover, where he’s a two-time winner. He led 29 laps there earlier this year before an engine failure ended his day.
“For me to win at Loudon, it’s more than a stretch, more than a dream,” Kenseth said. “This is probably one of my worst places. This just shows you how good this team is.”
Chase drivers filled six of the top 10 spots. Biffle was third and Johnson fourth. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was sixth and Carl Edwards ninth. Jamie McMurray was the highest non-Chase finisher in fifth place.
JGR, with Busch, in the past has dominated the regular season, but dropped off considerably once the Chase began. Now they’ve carried their success into the Chase and are a credible 1-2 threat to give Toyota its first Sprint Cup title.
Busch is nipping at Kenseth and said the 20 “lucked into one” last weekend. He blamed a poor restart for losing at New Hampshire.
“That’s good that we’re both up there like that,” Busch said. “We’re pushing each other hard and we’re pushing the competition, too.”
While NASCAR has been smacked with scandal, Kenseth has quietly gone under the radar doing what he does best: winning races. He has 31 wins in 500 starts.
He joined Richard Petty as the only NASCAR driver to win in his 500th career start. It was easy to spot Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota — and not just because it was the only car in Victory Lane. JGR slapped an oversized “500th Start” logo on the front of the hood.
Chase drivers took spots 13-17: Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer. Kevin Harvick was 20th and Kasey Kahne slammed the inside wall with 48 laps left and was 37th.
Kenseth took the lead from Bowyer with 92 laps left. Martin Truex Jr., whose future is in limbo after NAPA dropped its sponsorship of Michael Waltrip Racing in the wake of the NASCAR scandal at Richmond, led 98 laps and was 10th
Johnson, a five-time champion, is 18 points behind Kenseth. Edwards, Biffle and Harvick are all within 39 points of the leader.
Johnson has seven wins at Dover and could use an eighth to stay a contender for a sixth championship.
Johnson had some fun with Kenseth on Twitter, writing, “Congrats @mattkenseth. Careful though, you keep winning like this and they’ll start booing you.”
Odds are Kenseth will take it.