Matt Kenseth holds up the trophy in Victory Lane after winning the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Saturday in Darlington, S.C. †(AP Photo)
Back in 1971, Richard Petty won the Maryville 200 at Smokey Mountain Raceway, beating out Benny Parsons to score one of his 200 career victories on NASCAR’s top level. Three days later, Petty was the class of the field in Martinsville, giving him his second top-tier win that week.
Matt Kenseth hadn’t even been born when The King pulled off that double, but he sure knows what it must have felt like. After all, Kenseth scored two Cup wins himself last week.
Kenseth’s first victory came during an appeal heard last Wednesday. After the folks at Joe Gibbs Racing argued their case, a crippling package of penalties that came in the wake of Kenseth’s victory in Kansas last month was all but washed away by a three-person appeals panel.
In one fell swoop, Kenseth jumped from 12th to fourth in the standings and the bonus points he earned toward his Chase seeding from his win in Kansas were reinstated. When the sanctions were originally announced, Kenseth spoke out on how severe he thought NASCAR’s penalties were. But even he seemed pleasantly surprised by how far the sanctions were rolled back last week.
In reality, the folks at JGR got some drafting help in their victory. Just a week earlier, NASCAR’s chief appellate officer, John Middlebrook, reduced some penalties leveled against Roger Penske Racing. Seeing as Penske was on the record saying his team was willingly working in the gray areas of NASCAR’s rule book, the sanctions against JGR looked even more severe.
After all, the irregularity in Kenseth’s engine wasn’t perpetrated by JGR. Instead, it was a simple mistake by Toyota Racing Development that didn’t give Kenseth’s car any sort of advantage over the competition. Following Middlebrook’s decision in the Penske case, it would have looked pretty silly if JGR’s penalties were upheld.
After scoring a win via appeal, Kenseth showed up in Darlington on Saturday night and scored a victory the old-fashioned way — on the track — to continue his surge toward a potential second championship.
Kenseth’s win at Darlington was a testament to his driving ability. He kept an ill-handling car in contention while his team, minus crew chief Jason Ratcliff, who was serving a suspension for the Kansas incident, continued to adjust on the car as the race wore on.
The No. 20 team hit the jackpot on the final pit stop, and as teammate Kyle Busch’s car started to fade late in the race, Kenseth was in position to drive by him and score the win. The victory offered more evidence that the combination of Kenseth’s poise and JGR’s speed might be a title-winning combination.
The way it’s shaping up, the 2013 title race will likely boil down to a battle between two of NASCAR’s most consistent drivers over the last decade. Since 2002, when Jimmie Johnson entered the Cup Series full time, he has finished in the top 10 in 63 percent of his starts. Kenseth has finished inside the top 10 just over 52 percent of the time during that span.
Even though NASCAR markets itself as a weekly fender-banging, tire-squealing temper tantrum, the reality is that consistency wins championships.
Winning a championship usually doesn’t happen because a driver epitomizes the checkers-or-wreckers image churned out by the marketing department — instead, titles are won by drivers who turn bad days into good days and good days into victories.
It may not be flashy, but it is reality.
While Kenseth had one of the best weeks of his career, he’ll need to keep the momentum rolling in order to win another title. In the end, his fortunes will ultimately rise and fall with the parts that are put into his race cars each week.
JGR has a history of putting fast cars on the track, but title runs by Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch have famously been short-circuited by part failures.
The argument that one light engine rod inserted by TRD didn’t give Kenseth an advantage in Kansas may have won him an appeal, but such oversights in quality control could cost him dearly down the road.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at email@example.com.