DARLINGTON, S.C. – Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth finished 1-2 in last year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship standings, theoretically establishing them as favorites for the 2014 title.
Yet here we are seven races into the season and both still are seeking their first victory, which is not good. Race winners get first dibs on spots in the expanded (16 drivers) and revamped Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format. Racing for points is passé.
After seven races this season, there have been seven different winners. Coming into Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway it’s easy to envision either Johnson or Kenseth finally visiting victory lane – and likely securing a place in the Chase. Kenseth is the defending race champion; Johnson won in 2012. Overall, Johnson has three Darlington wins, having swept two events there in 2004.
Monday’s rain-delayed race at Texas Motor Speedway was forgettable for both. Kenseth finished seventh. His assessment: “…we just really struggled … we were just really far off.”
Johnson finished 25th after getting caught up in debris from Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s early-race accident and later having a right-side tire issue. Said Johnson: “It was a day of bad luck. We had a fast race car, so there was a little silk lining in it, but it was a terrible finish.”
Onto Darlington, the oldest superspeedway in the series, dating to 1950 when the first Southern 500 started NASCAR’s eventual across-the-board transformation from racing on dirt to asphalt and concrete tracks. The 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval has retained much of its character – and its reputation as one of the most challenging layouts in all of NASCAR. Johnson and Kenseth have held their own, however. Johnson has an average finish of 8.8 (second-best in the series); Kenseth has a respectable 16.6. Johnson’s Darlington driver rating is an impressive 107.5; Kenseth is at 90.9.
A victory at Darlington, aside from the making-the-Chase implications, would be a tonic for either driver, considering the prestige of the long-running event.
As a point of reference, both drivers have been running consistently. Kenseth comes to Darlington second in the series standings, only four points behind Jeff Gordon – another guy without a win thus far. Johnson is seventh in the points. Consistency alone just doesn’t cut it anymore. A mere seven races into the season, we’re not talking about dire straits just yet.
But if the pressure isn’t exactly “on” it’s definitely building for all three of those former NASCAR Sprint Cup champions.
“It’s just a challenge right now,” Johnson said.