LOUDON, N.H. — Encore, encore. What an encore performance.
After bolting from the gate with a victory in last weekend’s Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, the leadoff race in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, Matt Kenseth followed up his amazing 1-2 finish over Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch with another such perfecta in Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
In making the 500th start of his NASCAR career, Kenseth recorded his career-best seventh win of the season and second in as many Chase races in his No. 20 Toyota, which sported a special silver-and-black paint scheme and hood decal in honor of his milestone start.
“The 500th start, I’m glad to get the win. It’s really meaningful to me,’’ said Kenseth, 41, of Cambridge, Wis., who became the third driver in the history of the Chase to win the first two races, joining Greg Biffle (2008) and Tony Stewart (2011). “Honestly, starts are kind of like birthdays — when they start getting that high you kind of wish that people weren’t counting them anymore.’’
Kenseth, who became the 12th driver to win in the last 12 Sprint Cup races at the 1.058-mile oval at NHMS, and joined iconic seven-time champion Richard Petty as the only drivers in NASCAR history to win his 500th start.
“You guys keep talking about stats and starts and Richard Petty and all of this,’’ said Kenseth as he sat in the postrace news conference flanked by crew chief Jason Ratcliff and JGR president J.D. Gibbs. “J.D. keeps sitting here going, ‘He’s old, we’re not going to keep him around that long, he’s done.’ So I guess more than being proud of 500 starts, I’m proud that our performance is this good after 500 starts.
“It’s been the best season of my career, by far, and I just hope that we can keep that rolling.’’
Kenseth expressed some anxiety about keeping up the momentum he generated in Chicago when he arrived at NHMS, where he was winless in 27 previous starts and which he ranked as one of his least favorite NASCAR venues.
“If I had to pick all the races, this is probably one that I had probably more anxiety over than most just because I really feel like I’m the weak link here,’’ said Kenseth, who led four times for the most laps (106), including the last 53 after he surged to the lead for good on Lap 248 after coming off pit road first following a yellow-flag stop.
“We had a pretty good car in the spring, and I kind of messed it up a little bit,’’ Kenseth added, referring to his ninth-place finish from the 12th starting position in July’s Camping World RV Sales 301 at NHMS. “I was hoping we’d have a good car today and I didn’t want to hold them back.’’
Kenseth was concerned about his teammate Busch, the Chase’s No. 2 seed, who went into the weekend 8 points behind in the standings.
“I was a little bit worried about this weekend more so than some tracks just because it has been a tough track for me,’’ said Kenseth, who had posted five top-five finishes, including a runner-up finish in 2004, and 13 top 10s along with one did not finish in his previous 27 starts at Loudon.
“It’s tough to pass, it’s easy to get shuffled back on a restart and not get such a good finish.’’
But Kenseth’s fears were allayed when he showed up Friday and unloaded a fast car that was fast in qualifying and race trim.
“I don’t think Matt gives himself enough credit around this place,’’ said Ratcliff. “One thing you have to do really well, I think, to win a race here is you have to be exceptional at restarts, and track position is huge, especially when most of the guys are going to have either old left-side or old right-side tires, and it makes it difficult to get going.
“His restarts were exceptional today, and I think that was one of the keys that got us a victory.’’
Kenseth expanded his lead over Busch in the standings to 14 points (2,111-2,097). Roush Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle finished third, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson was fourth, and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top five.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, finished sixth.
“Certainly, we were never as fast this weekend as the 20 was,’’ said Busch, who qualified 12th fastest, a tick slower than Kenseth’s qualifying result [ninth]. “They just had a special car. Sometimes you unload with them, and they’re just phenomenal. The 20 had that here this weekend. We tried everything to try to keep up with him and to get pace with him, but it was tough to do.’’
Two races into the Chase, it’s become painfully evident to Kenseth’s competitors — even his own teammate — that he is in the midst of a special season, possibly a championship season. In Kenseth’s case, it would be the second of his career after he won the last title of the NASCAR Winston Cup era in 2003.
Kenseth, though, seemed to chafe at criticism over the fact he won the title for car owner Jack Roush after winning just one race, which prompted NASCAR to adopt the Chase as its championship playoff format.
But now that he’s won seven races, including the first two in the Chase, Kenseth appears hell-bent on removing any such stigma, or doubt, about his latest championship run.
“I was really proud of what we did that year ,’’ Kenseth said. “That was tough to accomplish. We ran well, got good finishes. Every year is different. 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,’’ he added. “When we talk about wins and Chases and stuff, I think of Tony Stewart.’’
Kenseth pointed out how Stewart won his first Chase title — and second championship overall — driving the No. 20 car for JGR in 2005 without posting a single Chase win, and how Stewart won it all in 2011 driving his own Stewart-Haas Racing car to victory in half of the Chase races.
“I don’t think there’s a magic formula,’’ said Kenseth, who will head to Dover, Del., next week in the hopes of going for the Chase trifecta.
“You just have to have more points than whoever finishes second. That’s how you win it.’’