Last season, Matt Kenseth set the tone of his successful first season at Joe Gibbs Racing with his victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Kenseth was by far the best in the Sprint Cup Series in 2014 on 1.5-mile intermediate tracks with an average finish of 5.73, including other wins at Kansas, Kentucky and Chicagoland.
It’s possible, however, Kenseth and his JGR teammates might have their signals crossed heading into Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 – at least when it comes to qualifying.
“I was depressed last week not making (the top) 12 – this week I couldn’t make (the top) 24. It was really bad,” said Kenseth, who will start 29th on Sunday. “I’ve got to figure out what I’m doing wrong.
“I’m not sure what went wrong. We worked on qualifying pretty hard. We were off a little bit, but I didn’t think we were off nearly this far. I’ve got to get better at it, for sure.”
NASCAR’s new aerodynamic package – designed primarily for the intermediate tracks – also gets its debut Sunday, and those changes may negate some of the advantage Kenseth and JGR teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch held from last season.
All three will have to battle from the back of the field if they are to have a shot at winning Sunday’s race. Busch will start 20th and Hamlin 27th.
One trait Kenseth held throughout all of last season – other than his trademark consistency – was his speed. Week-in and week-out he had one of the fastest cars.
Through the season’s first two races, Kenseth hasn’t led a single lap, and the three JGR drivers have led 35 of the 512 laps raced.
Kenseth said it was difficult to tell whether JGR had lost any of its advantage on intermediate tracks this season.
“Nobody’s raced here, obviously, with this new no ride-height rule and with the new aero package and the bigger spoiler and all that stuff,” he said. “It’s a little bit of an unknown really, until you get going.”
Kenseth’s domination on the intermediate speedways last season played a big role in his ability to battle for the series championship. He would love to replicate that success on the intermediate tracks, which make up 11 of the 36 points-paying races on the 2014 schedule.
“I feel like when you get back from California you kind of have a pretty good idea where you stack up compared to your competition because you’ve been on a superspeedway, you’ve been on a flat mile, and you’ve been at an intermediate like (Las Vegas),” he said.
“It’s still early in the season – I don’t think in the first handful of races you can really predict where you’re going to be at the end of the year because things change a lot.”
Even so, were Kenseth to get through the first handful of races without a win or run consistently poorly, it would certainly raise a red flag over the driver who outran everyone else in 2013.
“The rules package is a fair amount different than it was last year. Obviously that’s going to evolve. Either the people that are ahead of you, you may get caught up to them a little bit or vice versa,” Kenseth said.
“I think certainly after the next few weeks you kind of get an idea of where you are, where your strong suits are and where you need to improve.”
Right now, it might seem like improvement is needed everywhere. But you can never be too certain.
Kenseth was a surprise last year as he enjoyed his most prolific season in the Cup series which kicked off with a win at Vegas. He ended the year with seven wins and the most laps led in his career.
“Success is great while you’re having it. But what we did last year has just about zero impact on this year,” Kenseth said.
“Some people, they get on a roll, and maybe they get more confident or maybe even arrogant. Some of that works for them. That doesn’t work for me.”