Winless thus far in 2014, Matt Kenseth looks to repeat last year’s victory at Darlington this Saturday

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At this time last year, Matt Kenseth already had two wins in his back pocket, en route to a Sprint Cup Series-leading seven wins in the entire 2013 season.

But seven races into 2014 and Kenseth is still an oh-fer in the wins column.

He’s hoping to change that in Saturday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

And he has reason for optimism: he is the defending winner of last year’s race there, finally breaking through after 19 tries of coming up short against the fabled “track too tough to tame.”

“I always feel like the Southern 500 is one of the biggest races of the year — certainly it was right up there towards the top of my list of tracks I wanted to win at that I never won at before last year,” Kenseth said in his weekly media release. “It was a really big win. It was exciting and it didn’t look like we were going to win. Kyle (Busch) had that problem late and we were able to sneak by him there with 10 (laps) to go or something like that. It was a big week for us and it was really, really cool to be able to finally win the Southern 500, for sure.”

“(It’s) certainly one of the most historic (races). … To be able to win here in any kind of race, any kind of car, any conditions and certainly the Southern 500 is, I think, special. I think you could ask anybody and that’s one that they would tell you that.”

This year’s race was changed from what had been a relatively new tradition – on Mother’s Day weekend – to mid-April.

“It doesn’t change how you’re going to drive it at all,” Kenseth said. “Conditions are a little hard to predict just because we only come here once a year — I don’t think anybody really tests or anything.

“With the weather forecast being decent, I can’t really remember the weather last May, but it’s supposed to be pretty warm the next couple days so I think that’s good. I think that will be good for the fans and I think that will probably be good for the racing and everything too. It’s not going to be too terribly cold at night.”

Like Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and others, Kenseth is one of several of Sprint Cup’s highest-profile drivers that still hasn’t won a race in 2014.

“I can’t say I’m totally shocked,” Kenseth said when asked about how there have been seven different winners in as many races to start the Cup season. “I think whenever you throw a pretty big rules change at everybody, some people are going to pick up on it sooner than others.

“I think it always spreads the field out a little bit because some guys are going to hit it and some guys are going to miss it, and I think that always creates passing and mixes the field up and makes the racing more interesting in my mind. I think that everybody every week is probably gaining on it and the field is going to get closer together as we keep rolling through the year here.

“It’s been interesting because there’s been a lot of different winners and been some guys that have won a lot that haven’t won yet.  It’s been an interesting year for sure.”

Ironically, in a season where the revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup format is predicted on wins, the top two leaders in the standings this week are drivers who have yet to win a race this season: Gordon and Kenseth.

“You just don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Kenseth said. “Is there going to be 10 winners?  Is there going to be 20 winners? I don’t know, the way it’s going. How important are your points going to be? I would think, history suggests that there’s going to be a few guys added by points that didn’t win. Certainly if that’s the case and you haven’t won yet, then the point standings are very important. Come September, you don’t really know how important they’re going to be.”

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Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”