By admin | March 7, 2009
By Richard Allen
Itâ€™s hard to imagine that the two most improved drivers in the Sprint Cup division might well be two former champions who each qualified for the Chase for the Championship last year.
While both have won championships and both did make the championship playoff in 2008, both also did something completely out of character for them last year. Neither driver won a race in 2008. Gordon had won at least one race in every season since 1994 when he won his first Sprint Cup event. Whatâ€™s more, even though he finished 7th in the final standings last year, he was never really a contender for a fifth title.
Kenseth also finished off the 2008 campaign without a win. He had a streak of six consecutive years with a win before failing to visit victory lane last year. And like Gordon, he was never really a serious threat for the championship despite making the Chase.
This season could not have started any better for Kenseth, at least until last week that is. The Wisconsin driver began 2009 by claiming the rain shortened Daytona 500. He followed that up by taking the checkered flag in the Auto Club 500 the next Sunday in Fontana, California.
In each of his wins, Kenseth had to beat Gordon. Although Gordon finished 13th in Daytona, he was a major factor throughout most of the race. Late race incidents and pit stops dropped him back at the end.
In California, Gordon relentlessly chased Kenseth over the last 50 miles of the event only to come up short and have to settle for a 2nd place run.
Kensethâ€™s good fortune quickly turned in Las Vegas. At the very outset of the Shelby 427 he began complaining of engine problems. Just moments later he made the hard left turn into the garage area. After winning the first two races of the year and attempting to pull off the unprecedented feat of claiming three consecutive wins to start the season, Kenseth wound up in last place in Vegas.
Gordon again looked like a serious threat to claim a win in Vegas. However, during a round of green flag pit stops, the four time Sprint Cup champion missed the entrance to pit road. He damaged his tires in the attempt to get slowed down and before he could make it back around the 1.5 mile track his left front tire blew, causing significant damage to the carâ€™s fender.
Gordonâ€™s crew made speedy repairs which allowed their driver to move all the way back up to 6th place at the checkered flag.
With his three solid runs, Gordon has placed himself in a familiar position. He currently sits atop the Sprint Cup standings with an 18 point lead over Clint Bowyer.
Kensethâ€™s 43rd place result in Las Vegas dropped him from the top spot but the strength of his two victories has allowed him to only fall back into a tie for 3rd.
The NASCAR season is barely underway. Only 3 races of 36 have been completed. But at this point, two of the sportâ€™s top stars would probably agree that this year has already been better than last.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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