DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Long before Matt Kenseth qualified on the outside pole for tonight’s Coke Zero 400, everyone in Daytona International Speedway’s garage area knew he would find a way to get up front during the race.
In the past two years nobody has mastered the challenges of restrictor-plate racing like Kenseth. Counting the Talladega, Ala., Superspeedway, Kenseth has led a total of 473 laps in the past six restrictor-plate races.
Winning, however, hasn’t been as easy.
Despite leading so many laps and being the leader at the white flag in five of the six races, Kenseth has only been able to find Victory Lane twice in the past two years.
“I’ve been really spoiled honestly the last year-and-a-half, the last six plate races,” Kenseth said.
A year ago Kenseth drove a Ford for Roush Fenway Racing. This year he’s in one of Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas. A year ago he drove the Car of Tomorrow. This year he’s in a completely new Generation-6 model.
All that seems to suggest the driver, not the car, is the common denominator.
“Matt is awesome,” five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson said. “The guy does a great job driving the car, knows what he is looking for, doesn’t let things rattle him and can withstand pressure. He can do it all. He really does a great job.
Johnson said Kenseth’s crew chief Dave Rogers “has been coming along as a crew chief, growing, learning very smart guy, very well respected guy in the garage area. The pairing of those two I think the garage area took notice when Matt made the decision to leave (Roush) and then who he was paired with I think everybody felt they are going to have their hands full over the course of the year with the No. 20 car and that has been the case for sure.”
When Kenseth takes the green flag tonight at 7:30 (TNT), he will be next to JGR teammate Kyle Busch.
“This is a testament to the bodies and the engines and everybody at JGR to build great race cars,” Busch said after winning the pole Friday afternoon at 193.723 mph. “You want to stay up front and you want to stay out of trouble. It’s cool to have Matt on the front row with us.”
Kenseth was second-fastest at 193.299 mph.
Kenseth made his decision to leave Roush a year ago before the Daytona race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. said it was a difficult choice since he spent 14 seasons with Jack Roush, winning the 2003 championship. As far as Earnhardt was concerned, Kenseth made the right move.
“He is in some really good equipment and he is with some really good people in Joe (Gibbs) and J.D. (Gibbs); they are going to give him an amazing opportunity,” Earnhardt said.
Kenseth led a race-best 86 laps at the season-opening Daytona 500, only to fall out with a blown engine 51 laps short of the checkered flag.
He led a race-best 142 laps at Talladega in May, only to get shuffled to an eighth-place finish during an improbable charge by David Ragan on the final lap.
Both races played out differently. Daytona was the debut of the Gen-6 car and most of the race was spent in a long single-file line. Talladega featured a lot more pack racing with traffic stacking up three-wide and 10-deep.
So what does Kenseth expect during the 400-mile race tonight?
“I expect that it will be a cross between Daytona and Talladega,” he said. “Probably more like Talladega.”
Which scenario plays out, Kenseth said he’s ready.
“My confidence level is high,” he said. “I feel real good about it.”