- Brant James, Contributor, espnW.com
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Matt Kenseth glided almost anonymously into the Chase for the Sprint Cup despite possessing a series-best five wins and the points lead when it was revealed that other teams had played espionage games with the playoff seeding at Richmond.
Controversy has a way of dominating the storyline. And the understated Kenseth has an affinity for avoiding it.
By the time the 2003 series champion emerged into the news cycle he was in Victory Lane in the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway, chortling wryly over his circumstance.
Kenseth has little hope of going undercover again, not after capturing the second race of the Chase on Sunday at Loudon, N.H., amassing his career-best seventh win of the season and becoming the third driver to win the first two races of NASCAR's 10-race playoff system.
But he may be safe out in the open now.
With eight races left, there is much time for the field to catch up. But with five of the 12 drivers pursuing him already a race's worth of points behind a driver renowned -- if not unfairly criticized -- for his grinding consistency, there is the notion that he might have already finished off much of the field. Only Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch (14) and five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson (18) are within 20 points.
Now Kenseth enters Dover (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN), where he has two wins and an average finish of 13.6 in 29 starts. For a driver whose first title march was considered so mundane it supposedly spurred NASCAR to enact the Chase format the following season, the prospect of Kenseth putting a half nelson on the rest of the season is a tangible concern.
Only teammate Busch and Johnson have more top-5s and top-10s this season and Kenseth has led 164 more laps than any other driver.
Perhaps NASCAR could change the points system amid his title run this time. Kenseth seems all right with it.
"If you're fortunate enough to win a championship or another championship or whatever, I don't think there's a bad way to win it," Kenseth said. "I know it still gets brought up because it was the last year without the Chase, and we won one race and did all that stuff. I was really proud of what we did that year. That was tough to accomplish. We ran well, got good finishes.
"Who knows what's going to happen the next eight weekends. There's a ton of racing to do. Obviously I feel great about our performance. When we talk about wins and Chases and stuff, I think of Tony Stewart. He won the championship driving the 20 car without a win in the Chase, and he won in his own car winning half the races in the Chase. I don't think there's a magic formula. You just have to have more points than whoever finishes second. That's how you win it."
You win it, crew chief Jason Ratliff said, by not muddling the formula that made Kenseth the top seed after 26 races.
"We sat down a couple weeks ago and just kind of had a little informal meeting, went to lunch, and I think our philosophy or thought process coming in was let's just continue to do what we've been doing," said the first-time Chase competitor. "We don't need to do anything different, we don't need to do anything new, and the guys have done a really good job of doing that, of paying attention to details and executing at the shop as well as at the racetrack."
Statistically, Kenseth will create a trend with whatever happens at Dover. Former Roush Fenway teammate Greg Biffle won the first two races of the 2008 season but finished third, 217 points behind the Johnson juggernaut. Stewart won the first two in 2011 -- a precursor to a Chase-record five victories in 10 races -- and won the title on a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards, another former Roush teammate of Kenseth's.
That Busch -- historically an ultra-talented Chase disappointment -- is pressing Kenseth could be to Kenseth's benefit. Nothing motivates like internal competition, and Kenseth is schooled in the art of flourishing in such a situation after 13 seasons at the playground dodgeball game that is Roush Fenway Racing's Monday morning debriefs.
So concerned is the rest of the field that it seemingly began playing November mind games on pit road as Kenseth was celebrating a win at a track where he had not won in 28 starts.
Edwards, while asserting that he really, really wasn't trying to conjure any ill luck for Kenseth, astutely noted that Joe Gibbs Racing had been bedeviled by devastating mechanic problems at various points of the regular season. One of those occurred at Dover this summer, when Kenseth's engine failed with his No. 20 Toyota in the lead.
Johnson, another low-key champion who was obviously speaking from experience, posed that Kenseth would soon have to cope with the glare of notoriety and the backlash of perceived overindulgence in success from NASCAR's disparate fan base.
Certainly, Kenseth has dealt with fame and notoriety before as a two-time Daytona 500 winner, but that was the basking-in-the-glory type afforded the conquering hero.
Kenseth's 2003 title came in III B.T. (before Twitter), before instant interaction with drivers and the race series was possible. Twitter is, after all, as driver Joey Logano notes, full of mean people.
But even in an era of rapid accessibility and the self-defeating tendency to sample the prevailing mood of the populous, Kenseth may be well-suited to tuck the head and bear off for Homestead.
He has long displayed an affinity for existing just outside the limelight, and flourishing without the glare. It seems to amuse him and benefit him.
As an unknown competing in his third full Sprint Cup season in 2002, he screeched his Mustang to a halt in the parking lot at Rockingham next to Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had been trapped by a throng of fans by a locked gate.
"Get in," he said.
Upon stopping for dinner at a McDonald's on the way back to Charlotte, Kenseth found the path clear to the register for him and his wife, Katie, as NASCAR's most popular driver was again engulfed by admirers.
Distractions off to the side, he's heading right to the front of the line again.
Matt Kenseth is off to a hot start in the Chase after two races, having already put half the field nearly a race -- or more -- down in points. His cool demeanor is serving him well.