Two months ago, any talk about who could win the 2013 Sprint Cup Series championship included the names Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson. While Johnson is still considered the heavy favorite, Kenseth's name doesn't come up quite as often, thanks to his recent struggles.
Kenseth left Roush Fenway Racing, the only team he had ever driven for, after the 2012 season to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.
As part of the move, Kenseth switched from driving a Ford to a Toyota. He was working with a crew chief and team he was unfamiliar with and he had a brand new set of teammates. Some drivers could have struggled in the early going while trying to make that transition.
It was anything but a struggle for Kenseth.
Through his first 11 races with the team, he posted three wins and seven top-10 finishes. He led laps in all but two events, and was third in the point standings.
He quickly became anointed as one of the favorites to win the championship.
Since his third win of the season in Darlington, Kenseth's fortunes have taken a turn for the worse.
In his last 12 races Kenseth has recorded a win, but has had very little success outside of that victory. He has posted just four top-10s and he has dropped to sixth place in the standings.
The last three races have all produced finishes of 15th place or worse for Kenseth, and he was never a factor in any of them. He now sits 125 points behind Johnson, the current leader in the standings.
The saving grace for Kenseth is that when the Chase begins, the points reset. With his four wins he will almost certainly be one of the top-three seeds and begin the playoffs within 10 points of the lead, assuming he can stay inside the top 10 in the standings over the next three weeks.
But if Kenseth has any chance of winning the championship, his results need to more closely resemble his early-season finishes as opposed to the ones he has produced more recently.
In total, Kenseth has recorded 11 of his 28 career wins on tracks used to make up the 10-race Chase, including a win at Kansas earlier in the season.
He has also recorded a total of 11 wins on mile-and-a-half tracks, which make up five out of 10 races in the Chase.
While it has been obvious to everyone, including Kenseth, that he has struggled recently, he remains optimistic.
In a recent telephone interview with ESPN.com's David Newton, Kenseth said:
We've had a little bit of a fall lately. We need to stay in the top 10, obviously, to get those bonus points in the Chase. They're going to be real important.
I feel good. We're going to have better cars, better engines, better everything at the end of the year. But we still have to execute and turn those into finishes and into wins. … We need to start now, this weekend.
Regardless of how the standings look when the Chase begins, Johnson will undoubtedly be the odds-on favorite to win the title, but don't overlook Kenseth. After all, he is a former series champion, and has contended multiple other times.
Kenseth quickly silenced any would-be doubters very early in the season by going out and winning three races. At this point, it really wouldn't be much of a surprise if he went out and did it again, but this time when it really counts—during the Chase, when the championship is on the line.
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