NASCAR Chase For The Cup: Must-Win Sunday For Matt Kenseth

Step Two of the NASCAR Chase For The Cup series goes Sunday afternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, with the running of the Sylvania 300. Brad Keselowski got a leg up in the 12-driver push for the championship when he won last week. But as NASCAR makes its second trip of the season to Loudon, the driver who deserves our attention is Matt Kenseth.

Kenseth was at or near the top of the points standings all year, but hasn’t won a race since taking the Daytona 500 to start the year in February. The lack of outright wins hurt him when the standings were re-calibrated last week to start the Chase, and then a poor race in Chicago put him 26 points behind Keselowski.

“He’s gotta win,” said TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill. “The restructuring of the system a couple years ago hurt him more than anyone.” Bill went on to add how NASCAR made key rules changes that would make winning races—not the accumulation of points through consistent steady finishes the priority. This year is classic Kenseth, in that he rarely has a bad race, but also doesn’t bring home the win often enough. For the time being, just another high finish will be enough to move him up in the standings—he’s currently 11th—but eventually he will need to win at least one race and probably two if he wants the Cup.

Jeff Gordon won the pole in the preparations for the race and according to Bill, the early lead is critical in New Hampshire. “It’s a flat track—low bankings on the corner—and only a one-mile oval, so it’s difficult to pass,” he said. The last race here in July was won by Bill’s personal favorite, Kasey Kahne, and with Kahne in striking distance at 15 points back, a repeat showing might put him atop the board by Sunday night. Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart are three and eight points back respectively.

Other contending drivers have recent success on this track—Stewart won here in 2011 en route to his championship and Johnson captured a race in Loudon in 2010. Greg Biffle, perilously close to Kenseth’s must-win territory, brought one home in 2008. Kevin Harvick, who’s in the same boat at Kenseth, won here in 2007.

With nine races left in the season, this Sunday has the feel of candidates in a presidential primary—everyone’s converging on New Hampshire in desperate need of a win that will give momentum for the decisive contests ahead.