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Kenseth, Gordon Jump-Start Chase Chances Heading To New Hampshire

After NASCAR’s “Longest Day” – the Geico 300 at Chicagoland Speedway that kicked off the 2013 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship – two drivers made the most out of the first race in the 10-race playoff.

By scoring his sixth win of the 2013 season, Matt Kenseth has established a career-high for victories in a season and solidified the points lead he had entering the race Sunday. The second driver is four-time Brickyard 400 winner and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who wasn’t in “The Chase” until NASCAR officials decided to install him as a 13th seed after some shady on-track team dealings at Richmond International Raceway cost him a position he was about to earn in the Chase.

There is tremendous irony involved for both drivers.

It was Kenseth’s 2003 Cup title – the last Winston Cup championship before NASCAR’s long and historic sponsor left the series – that planted the seeds for NASCAR to make drastic changes to how the Cup series determines its champion.

Kenseth droned his competition into submission in 2003 with just one victory but a high number of top-five and top-10 finishes for team owner Jack Roush. Kenseth was so solid he wrapped up the title at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, N.C., with the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway still one week off.

The manner that Kenseth scored the championship led to a massive yawn within in the sport. So NASCAR developed a 10-driver, 10-race “Chase” that debuted the following season with a new sponsor in Nextel, which later became Sprint. The first “Chase to the Championship” had five drivers in contention entering the final race of the season, with Kurt Busch scoring his first and so far only Cup title.

NASCAR went on to tinker with the Chase, increasing the number to 12 drivers and later rewarding the final two positions to “Wild Card” entries going to drivers in positions 11-20 with the most victories in the first 26 races of the season.

In many races, Kenseth had the nickname of the “Man who created the Chase” even though that was unfair for a driver who won the 2003 Cup title by simply playing by the rules.

“As far as the last one we won, it was a really long time,” Kenseth said. “Time goes by really quick. There are certainly no apologies for the way we won that championship. We had an unbelievable season that year. We didn't have the fastest cars, led the most laps, but we were consistently in the top five and had really, really good finishes, really good teamwork that whole entire year.

“The other thing is I've never been in a race before that I haven't wanted to win. If we could have won more races that year, been quicker, had circumstances go our way, we would have loved that to happen. It wasn't like we weren't trying to win more races. We had an incredible year that year, like I said. Didn't have the wins, but had a lot of good finishes.”

Kenseth has been rejuvenated in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing. When the Chase field was seeded after the Sept. 8 race at Richmond, Kenseth was seeded No. 1 instead of the driver who had held that position for most of the regular season – Jimmie Johnson. Kenseth’s five victories were the most in the first 26 contests this season.

The Geico 400 on Sept. 15 at Chicagoland was delayed twice by rain for a total of six hours and 30 minutes, turning the day race into a night race that ended past midnight Eastern Time. But Kenseth proved why he was the top seed by scoring a season-high sixth win.

“I don't really look at it at just surviving any track, I think you take it one week at a time, bring your ‘A game’ every week, bring your best equipment, go out with the idea of trying to win,” Kenseth said as he prepares for Chase Race No. 2 Sunday at New Hampshire International Speedway. “I think that's what everybody does. Obviously, only one team gets to do that every week. Everybody has different strategies. I'm not a big believer in a mulligan or you just got to get through this week. I don't want to just get through any week. I want to be competitive, run up front, hopefully lead some laps and put yourself in position to win races.”

Gordon endured an up-and-down week leading into Chicagoland. A collision of events between several teams, including Michael Waltrip Racing, Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports, in the final regular-season race at Richmond cast a spotlight of suspicion on the 12-driver Chase lineup. NASCAR officials took swift action by eliminating from the Chase MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. – who was the beneficiary of teammate Brian Vickers’ unnecessary green-flag pit stop at the end of the race to bounce this year’s Brickyard 400 winner Ryan Newman out of the Chase. Radio communication between Front Row driver David Gilliland and his team also revealed that Penske Racing had asked for “a huge favor” so that Gilliland did not pass Penske’s Joey Logano, allowing Logano to make The Chase.

Newman was reinstated to the Chase last Monday. But Gordon didn’t get the news that he would be added as a 13th driver until last Friday at Chicagoland Speedway.

Gordon made the most out of his second opportunity with impressive driving, leading in the late stages of the race before issues caused problems with his car. Undaunted, Gordon drove to a sixth-place finish just behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.

“Well, that was an incredible accomplishment,” Gordon said. “It just shows how much fight this team has in them. We never give up. And, what an awesome Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet race car we had. Whoa! Man, it was so much fun! To think how far down we were with 40 laps to go, I know we were like 18th on one of those last restarts. So to be able to come up through there and get sixth and have a shot at a top-five was a lot of fun. That’s what needed to get this thing started off right. And I’m proud of this team. Can’t wait to get to this next race.

“What is it? Loudon? We’re ready!”

Gordon may have momentarily forgotten where the next race in the Chase was being held, but he was quick to recall how important his team preparations will help him at the flat, paper-clip-shaped 1-mile oval in Loudon, N.H.

"I believe we learned a lot during those testing races, and it's a whole lot more fun than just turning lap after lap by yourself, “ Gordon said. “We would work on our setups for a couple hours, then 'race' to see how those setups compared to those of our teammates. It provided our team valuable information that we can use heading into this weekend's race.

"This is always a track that I look forward to coming to, and it's one we've had success at over the years. I love this track - it's just one where I have a really good feel of what I need to get the car through the corners fast and be able to make good passes and have good speed. There are a few tracks on the circuit - probably a handful of them - that I have that kind of confidence at, and this is one of them.

"This team has a lot of fight in them and we never give up. We've started to run better - I think Chicago was one of our best races so far this year - and we have started to finish better. We just need to keep building on that. When you have cars that drive like the one I had at Chicago, it's so much fun. I can't wait for this weekend's race."

And neither can Kenseth, who hopes to join three-time Cup champion and two-time Brickyard winner Tony Stewart of Columbus, Ind., as the only drivers to win Cup titles using the old Winston Cup points system counting every race of the season to the current Chase model that resets the field for the final 10 races. Stewart won a Winston Cup title in 2002 and won Sprint Cup “Chase” titles in 2005 and 2011.

Kenseth credits much of that success to his JGR crew chief Jason Ratcliff.

“I think that's part of the key, is our relationship,” Kenseth said. “I guess we hit it off right away from first time we met, kind of talked about things from the first time we went to the racetrack together. It’s definitely it's a team effort. The whole organization there, everybody that works on those cars, engines, gets them to the racetrack, pits them, it's the whole thing.

“It's been a good combination. It's been a good season so far. Hopefully can keep it rolling.”

Kenseth made his Cup debut in 1998 and has spent 14 seasons at NASCAR’s top level. He will drive a special 500th start paint scheme aboard his No. 20 Home Depot Husky Toyota for this weekend’s race events in Loudon and will look to earn his seventh win of the season in this milestone start.

“All this really means is that I’m old,” joked Kenseth when asked about his thoughts on the historic start. “I’m proud having 500 starts. I remember making my first one, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to even be able to make a second one. It’s a very tough business, so I feel very fortunate to have been with such great people, and to have driven such great cars and had fantastic sponsors throughout my career to be able to still be in this sport and competitive after this many seasons.”

Kenseth has been one of the most competitive drivers in Cup during his career. But deep down, a 2013 Sprint Cup title would probably give Kenseth a little bit of satisfaction by winning championships no matter what the format.

“Your goal, especially if you're fortunate enough to have won a championship, your goal every year after that is to try to win a championship,” Kenseth said. “If you come up short of that, I think it's always somewhat disappointing, a little disappointing. That's always your goal, no matter what the format is. The format, we all know what it is before the year starts. It's the same for everybody. The rules don't change as you go along. Sure, we'd love to win it in the new format.”

And this year, Kenseth may put an end to that by winning the Chase by winning races.

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