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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