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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, July 31, 2014

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In Sports Commentary

Matt Kenseth, shown here with his 2012 Daytona 500 championship trophy. would like to win another Sunday. (Photo: Action Sports Photography / Shutterstock.com)

In Sports Commentary

Matt Kenseth will take his No. 20 car into Daytona looking for his third race title. (Photo: Beelde Photography / Shutterstock.com)

Kenseth seeks place in history at Daytona 500 title


NASCAR is into its second decade following Matt Kenseth's controversial Sprint Cup championship in 2003, a title he captured after winning just a single race.

The way the points were distributed thereafter was dubbed "The Matt Kenseth Rule," but as time goes, that victory looks a bit better for the Cambridge native.

Why?

Because in 2002, NASCAR was introduced to a driver by the name of Jimmie Johnson, who became just the second rookie to ever claim the pole position at the Daytona 500. A year later, he won three times and finished just behind Kenseth for the title.

After second and fifth place finishes in 2004 and 2005, Johnson has won six of the last eight championships.

In the last decade, Kenseth has been a runner-up to Johnson in the Chase for the Sprint Cup twice, along with three other top five finishes.

Right now, drivers have to feel as if they're facing the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls or, now, LeBron James' Miami Heat, finding few gaps in Johnson's reign to win a title.

But, like the Houston Rockets of the mid-1990s, or the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, it can be done. Tony Stewart won in 2011, Brad Keselowski in 2012. They are the only drivers outside of Johnson to win a Chase title since Stewart won in 2005.

In fact, if you pull back further, you'll see that only five drivers have won a Chase title since 2003 – Kenseth, Keselowski, Kurt Busch (2004), Stewart and Johnson.

If Kenseth can win another title this season – a quest that begins this Sunday at the Daytona 500 – he will assert himself as one of the better drivers in the last 15 years.

Unfortunately, he will always be overshadowed by Johnson and Stewart. That happens in sports. But, winning two championships in the "Johnson Era" will only give his runner-ups and top five finishes more credibility.

Retrospect will say "if he didn't drive in that era, he would've won more."

After all, only nine drivers have ever won three championships. If not for Johnson, you could say Kenseth would have been the 10th.

Time is running out, however.

Kenseth turns 42 on March 10. The last driver to win a championship in his 40's was Dale Jarrett, who won the 1999 Chase at the age of 43.

But, hope always springs eternal at the season-opening Daytona 500, a race Kenseth won in 2009 and 2012.

Another win would put Kenseth in select company, as only five drivers have won three or more, and it would obviously get him off to a good start in chasing down Johnson in 2014.

"I really look forward to going to Daytona, running the Shootout or whatever it's called now on Sunday is always fun, or Saturday night," Kenseth said during testing in January.

"But I really look forward to Thursday, getting in the duels and kind of getting ready for the 500, and then once you finally get to Thursday, you get to race, and race Saturday and race Sunday. I look forward to that a lot, getting the season started, and then I also really look forward to getting – once Speedweeks is over, I almost feel like the season starts."

It is Kenseth's second year with Joe Gibbs Racing, and it was one of the most successful of his career. He won a career-high seven times and added an additional 12 top five finishes and 20 top 10s.

Now, can he not only duplicate that, or win that extra race or two to capture a second Sprint Cup title?

"I felt like I really learned a lot last year from December all the way until the season got over," Kenseth said. "And I'm honestly just as excited for this year as I was last year, so I feel like we've got a lot of good things going on over there."

"I'm looking forward to all three teams really being competitive this year and one of the three hopefully being able to win a championship."

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