My colleague Chris Estrada touched on the races of Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman yesterday, as they both are among the final eight drivers who have advanced to the Eliminator round.
Of course, there’s the other factor in play that still exists with both of them: they have as many Sprint Cup wins this year as I do, writing this piece, and as you do, reading this piece: zero.
It is both ironic and almost a touch hilarious that it’s these two drivers – Kenseth and Newman – in this situation in the year a supposedly greater emphasis was placed on winning, and considering these two helped drive the impetus for a change to the points structure and the introduction of a Chase in the first place, ahead of the 2004 season.
But 2003 seems so long ago, doesn’t it? Yet more than a decade ago while NASCAR, then in its final year as Winston Cup before it became NEXTEL Cup (forerunner to Sprint Cup), had perhaps its best ever on-track finish for the win when Ricky Craven edged Kurt Busch at Darlington, it also had a champion who had all of one win in total: Kenseth.
That was the year Newman, then in his second full year in the series, stormed through the field like a tornado through the central U.S. He scored 11 poles and eight wins driving for Team Penske – easily the class of the field in both categories – yet his inconsistency on race day resigned him to a forgettable sixth place in points.
Yes, Newman had the eight wins, but they were balanced out by seven finishes of 37th or worse. That included his infamous barrel roll in the rain-shortened 2003 Daytona 500 and a run of 39th, 38th, 42nd and 39th from Talladega in April through to Richmond in May.
Kenseth has long harbored consistency as his trademark and he’s using it again to his advantage this year. It’s not that he can’t win races – witness the fact a year ago Kenseth was in Newman’s shoes, winning a season (and career) high seven races and yet falling short of the title – but this year for either lack of luck or occasional lack of speed he’s been unable to get the job done.
Heck, Kenseth’s biggest news making moment this year came a week ago at Charlotte, when he went after Brad Keselowski in the garage post-race.
Meanwhile it’s hard to pinpoint what Newman’s biggest news making moment has been this year.
But 11 years later, Newman is a far more consistent driver than he was in the boom-or-bust period of that 2003 season. He’s been a steady, solid rock at the helm of Richard Childress Racing this season in his first year there, and has flown under the radar to get to this point.
So how would NASCAR react if one or both of Kenseth and Newman continue their consistent, nondescript, methodical run of results, fail to win, and advance through to Homestead, battle for the championship, and eventually have it come down to say, who finishes sixth or seventh to win the title?
It’s a question I’m guessing they don’t want to answer. But it would break open the debate about the value and true impact of this new format if either winless driver, again if they stay winless, was to emerge as champion over a six-win Brad Keselowski or a five-win Joey Logano, for instance.
Although, if it was Kenseth beating a Penske driver with the most wins, we’d have history repeat itself… just under a format designed primarily to prevent that from happening.
This all goes for naught if Newman or Kenseth wins between now and then. For the sake of the “winning means everything” mantra that has been trumpeted this year though, it’s not in NASCAR’s best interest to have either winless driver take home the biggest prize of all at the end of the season.
With six rounds remaining and 11 in the books, the Monster Energy 250 Supercross championship has been a brotherly affair with Jett Lawrence holding a commanding lead in the West division and Hunter Lawrence dominating the East.
Between them, the Lawrence brothers have won all but two races. Each rider has failed to claim the overall victory in a Triple Crown format although they both scored a win in one of the features.
Jett and Hunter both have a perfect record of podium finishes, but with four races remaining for each, the Supercross championship battle is far from over. Jett’s worst finish of the season was second in Anaheim 2; Hunter finished third in Arlington. Every other result for each rider was a victory and many of those came in weekends when they scored a heat win.
Both 250 divisions have two standalone races remaining. The West runs next on April 8 with a Triple Crown format in Glendale, Arizona and again in Denver on May 6. The East runs their next standalone race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on April 15 with another race on April 29 in Nashville.
With Jett and Hunter dominating their divisions and showing no sign of slowing, the big question will be how they ride head-to-head in the first of two East/West Showdowns in East Rutherford, New Jersey on April 22. The season winds down on May 13 in Salt Lake City, Utah with the second Showdown.
Race 1 | West 1 | Anaheim 1 Jett picked up where he left off in 2022. After scoring the 250 Supercross championship in the East last year, He put together a solid performance by finishing second in his heat and leading every lap of the main on his way to his first Anaheim 1 win and the eighth of his career. RJ Hampshire finished second with Cameron McAdoo rounding out the podium in what would set the tone for most of the championship to date. Meanwhile, it was a short season for Austin Forkner, who was expected to be one of Jett’s main rivals in the West. A hard crash early in the main event injured his knee and forced him out of the series.
Race 2 | West 2 | San Diego Round 2 of the 2023 Supercross championship was supposed to take place in Oakland, but persistent rain and flooding canceled the weekend and made San Diego the second race instead. That didn’t matter to Jett, who once again led flag-to-flag to score his ninth career victory. This was the first time a rider led every lap of the first two rounds since Forkner did so in 2019. Hampshire finished second to Lawrence for the second straight week with McAdoo in third. “[Podiums are not enough] right now,” McAdoo told NBC’s Jason Thomas afterward. “I was just pretty bummed on a couple things that happened towards the end that I just need to execute better.”
Race 3 | West 3 | Anaheim 2 Out of the gate, it appeared Hampshire would have something for Jett in the second Anaheim race. He won the first feature as the points’ leader slipped into third, but a hard crash for Hampshire in the second feature of the Triple Crown format sealed his fate for the night. Hampshire would go on to finish 11th overall and lose significant ground to Jett. The Triple Crown format would not be kind to Jett either as he finished sixth in Race 1 before finally winning the final event. Jett was second overall in this race behind Levi Kitchen who took the overall with a 4-2-2. This was Kitchen’s fifth 250 start. Stilez Robertson slotted into third with a 6-1-3.
Race 4 | East 1 | Houston Following in Jett’s footsteps, Hunter also set the mark with a win in the 250 East opener. The night was almost disastrous for the Supercross championship leader when Hunter was forced off track trying to pass Tom Vialle for the lead when that rider jumped wide in a rhythm section. Vialle was one of several rookies debuting that weekend and three of them scored top-10 finishes. Haiden Deegan finished fourth in his first 250 race, Vialle was seventh and Chance Hymas eighth. Talon Hawkins narrowly missed that mark and finished 11th. It wasn’t the first 250 race for Max Anstie, but it was his first in more than a decade and he finished second, later telling NBC Sports that “you can’t skip steps”. Jordon Smith rounded out the podium.
Race 5 | East 2 | Tampa Hunter opened the season with two wins, making this the seventh of his career. Now firmly established with the 250 East Supercross championship lead as Jett dominated the West, the Lawrence brothers are the first to hold the red plate simultaneously. As with the first race, this one did not come easy for Hunter. He had trouble on the opening lap and was forced to charge through the pack. It took all 19 laps to make up the deficit, but he caught Nate Thrasher on the final turn and edged him by 0.134 seconds. Anstie scored his second podium of the Supercross championship season.
Race 6 | West 4 | Oakland The rescheduled Round 2 saw Jett pick up where he left off. Scoring his 10th win, Jett set the largest margin of victory in his career with a 16.160 second advantage over Hampshire. His previous best was a 14.005-second advantage on a much larger track in the 2022 Daytona Supercross race. For the first time in 2023, Jett had to show patience. He stalked Hampshire and completed the pass when that rider made a mistake. “It was kind of like a chess game to see who was sending it and to try and pick the lines, so I just stayed back there,” Jett told NBC Sports afterward.
Race 7 | East 3 | Arlington It’s almost as if the Lawrences have the season choreographed. In the third 250 East race, Hunter suffered his first loss and as with Jett it came in a Triple Format race when he struggled in two features and won the other. A 1-3-6 put Lawrence third in the overall behind Thrasher (2-2-3) and Smith (4-1-5). Jeremy Martin (6-12-1) was the other rider with a feature win that night. Prior to 2023, three different feature winners and a separate overall winner happened only once: Austin Forkner took the top spot in Atlanta 2018 with a 4-2-3. The feature winners were Zach Osborne (1), Martin Davalos (2) and Martin (3).
Race 8 | East 4 | Daytona The granddaddy of Supercross linked the Lawrence brothers again as they became back-to-back winners in the 250 class on the famed track in Daytona International Speedway’s frontstretch. Jett was victorious in this race last year. That made them the only brothers to win during the history of the race. It was a vindication for Hunter, who struggled badly the week before. With his eighth career win, Hunter was rapidly closing in on Jett. Anstie was back on the podium in second to keep a perfect streak of top-fives alive. But it was Deegan who stole the show, earning his first podium in his fourth start with his famous father Bryan Deegan watching admiringly in the Daytona media center during postrace interviews.
Race 9 | East 5 | Indianapolis It was a perfect day for Hunter. He won his fourth main of the season and ninth of his career after being the fastest qualifier, holeshot winner and after leading the most laps. In fact, it has almost been a perfect season to this point with each Lawrence failing to win only one race through five rounds. It is now Hunter’s Supercross championship to lose with a 22-point advantage over Anstie and 31 above third-place Thrasher.
Race 10 | East 6 | Detroit In a season where the Lawrence’s paralleled one another so closely, it was inevitable that Hunter would catch and tie his brother on the all-time wins list at 10. Through this race, both had 27 starts in their career, so the playing field is equal and both earned nearly the same number of podium finishes and led the same number of races. Hunter continued to widen his lead over the competition as Anstie had an uncharacteristically bad race in which he crashed and finished last. Thrasher finished second and took over second in the standings, but he is now 35 points out of first. Deegan scored his second career podium after riding aggressively in his heat and that led to a series of events that saw his teammate Smith fail to make the main. Afterwards, Hunter defended Deegan’s aggressive block pass.
Race 11 | West 5 | Seattle Hunter didn’t get to celebrate his tie with Jett for long as the younger sibling scored his 11th career win. Jett is now almost one full race ahead of Hampshire with a 23-point advantage, but Hampshire refuses to fade into the background. Hampshire finished second in Seattle, which was the fourth time in five rounds that he did so. If not for the crash in Anaheim 2, this would be a nailbiter. Hampshire knows he still has a shot, however, because the next round in Arizona is another Triple Crown race. When Jett was reminded of that from the podium, he was visibly disappointed and replied “oof”.
With four podiums each, Thrasher (E), McAdoo (W), and Hampshire (W) are currently running for best in class and are looking over their shoulders at Smith (E) and Anstie (E) with top-three finishes in three races.