Matt Kenseth, leaving everyone again in his dust (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Yes, Matt Kenseth is a great driver, we've all known that for years. But this good?
It has been a simply amazing season for the quick-witted, wisecracking racer from Wisconsin.
Kenseth is certainly living up to all those accolades he's been getting this season, his first with Joe Gibbs and his first with crew chief Jason Ratcliff.
Kenseth made it two-for-two to open the NASCAR championship playoffs, winning Sunday's New Hampshire 300, just a week after opening the chase with a solid win at Chicago.
And this is Kenseth's league-leading seventh victory of the season.
Kyle Busch, Kenseth's teammate, finished a tight second again, for the second straight week.
So team owner Joe Gibbs now boasts the top two teams in the Sprint Cup standings.
"He didn't get through traffic very well, but I didn't get through traffic well either," Busch said of Kenseth. "I ran him down (closing to three lengths the final two laps), but when he got clean air, he was better.
"Matt lucked into one last weekend (at Chicago), when I didn't get a good restart.
"But this time I didn't have the car; Matt was better than us, clear air to clean air.
"It's nice to get a strong start. But it's only Week Two; we've got eight more weeks."
If you got it, smoke 'em. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"For me to win at Loudon is more than a stretch, more than a dream, because this is one of my worst places," an almost giddy Kenseth said. After 14 years with Ford's Jack Roush Kenseth moved to the Toyota-Gibbs camp this season, he's been a barn-burner, far exceeding anyone's expections, including his own.
This was his 500th career NASCAR Cup tour start. And he joined Richard Petty as the only NASCAR men to win on that milestone start.
"I sort of didn't want this 500th start, because it makes you feel old. But this has been a great start for Joe Gibbs Racing.
"Man, I just feel like the luckiest guy in the world."
The three-hour race was remarkably uneventful. The only serious bits of drama, aside from a few spins, came when Kasey Kahne crashed hard late, and when teammate Jeff Gordon overshot his pits and lost a shot at challenging.
Kahne appeared seriously dazed after his accident. But Kahne was cleared to get back in his damaged car and finish the race, amid some questions about a possible concussion.
The race began under clear, blue skies, with temperature in the low 70s. But the last hour of the race was run under cloudy, cooler conditions at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. And that changed the game for some teams...but not Kenseth's.
One big story line here of course is Jimmie Johnson, who is always a championship favorite. "We're in a good spot, we haven't given up too many points, and now we're going to one of my best tracks, Dover," Johnson said after finishing fourth. He finished fifth in the Chicago opener.
Those two runs are much better than the bad four-week run of 40th, 36th, 28th and 40th.
However Johnson hasn't really shown the punch expected by the five-time champion. Dover, this next race, could be a telling event for him.
Another big story line is Clint Bowyer and the Michael Waltrip guys. They're mired in a bad controversy, and it appears to have shaken confidence.
Bowyer was never in the game Sunday, finishing a weak 17th. Now he heads to Dover, and awaiting possible word from his sponsor about reaction to the Richmond controversy. There is heavy speculation this will not be a good week for Bowyer or Waltrip.
Ironically Bowyer's teammate Martin Truex Jr., who was an innocent victim of the Richmond drama but was still bounced out of the playoffs by NASCAR, ran strong early and much of the afternoon. He wound up 10th.
"We had a good car the first half of the race, but the second half we got terribly tight, when it was cooling off and clouding up," Truex said. "We just couldn't get it turning again."
The top four finishers -- Kenseth, Busch, Greg Biffle and Johnson -- are all playoff contenders. Biffle rallied to get into contention late. Dale Earnhardt Jr., another title contender, ran strong early but his odd pit strategy didn't play out that well; he finished sixth.
Title challengers Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick were never in the hunt.
The last three seasons the man who wound up winning the NASCAR championship won one of the first two chase races: Johnson at Dover in 2010, Tony Stewart here and Chicago in 2011, and Brad Keselowski at Chicago last year.
Martin Truex Jr., the innocent victim in that Richmond mess...now looking for a new ride maybe, and a new sponsor certainly (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Meanwhile Michael Waltrip is waiting for the next shoe to drop in his continuing Richmond 400 controversies, and the garage here was aswirl Sunday with worries that things could go from bad to worse for the beleaguered Toyota operation.
Big sponsor 5-Hour Energy, which backs Waltrip's Clint Bowyer team, has said it would wait till the end of the season before making any decision about 2014 sponsorship. And Waltrip says he's optimistic he can persuade them to return, despite the furor.
However it appears these next few days could be decisive in all that, now that big sponsor NAPA has made its decision to drop Waltrip and Martin Truex Jr. at the end of the season. Here is what Mr. 5-Hour himself, the CEO, had to say, briefly, here Sunday: http://bit.ly/1bzY6hd
And Toyota executives themselves have yet to weigh in on this problem -- which is not only a major credibility issue for NASCAR but also for Toyota, a company well known for disliking any negative publicity.
When the Matt Kenseth-Joe Gibbs Kansas engine penalties were dished out by NASCAR back in the spring, that provoked a storm...and led to the early retirement of Toyota's NASCAR boss Lee White.
And that was nothing compared to this.
How Toyota might handle this continuing firestorm surrounding Michael Waltrip's three-car team remains to be seen. It might not appreciate becoming such a centerpiece on the NBC Nightly News....
Waiting for Toyota executives to weigh in on this latest NASCAR controversy....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Truex, innocent in this whole thing, is handling things with class. But he points out that he now has to look out for himself, and that means making some quick decisions about 2014.
Immediately after NAPA's decision Thursday to pull the plug on the Waltrip-Truex team, there were hopes that NAPA, perhaps with Truex, might move to another stock car operation and continue its sports marketing here. NAPA is one of this sport's long-time sponsors. And there is speculation that Joe Gibbs is now trying to put together a deal for NAPA and Truex.
However Sunday here a man close to the situation said NAPA has now decided simply to drop out of NASCAR racing. If so, that could be a devastating blow; the sanctioning body itself just lost Nationwide as sponsor of its Triple-A tour (following the 2014 season).
Where Truex might land, if he does move on? Well, Toyota's Gibbs has been looking to fill a long-proposed fourth Cup team slot; Gibbs tried to get Kurt Busch earlier this year. And Richard Childress is still filling out his 2014 roster.
Truex says simply "life moves on. I've moved on from it.
"Decisions were made in the heat of battle. Maybe they were bad.... obviously they were wrong.
"We have to deal with the consequences. That's all I'm trying to do.
"We can't go back in time and undo anything."
Now Truex says "I'm trying to figure out what I'm going to do next year."
And it doesn't look like it will be anything with Waltrip. He points out "it's so late in the game, late in the season....
"People already know what they're doing next year.
"And this is definitely not the time of year you want to find out you don't have a ride next year....so to speak.
"It's going to be tough. Hopefully we'll figure it out."
Truex is certainly the sympathetic figure in all this.
Meanwhile....It took Roger Penske more than a week to show up at the track and address his team's part of those Richmond 400 controversies, and that probation penalty that NASCAR officials levied on his men for some apparently part in those 'make-the-chase' shenanigans.
The story out of Richmond, as pinned down in radio audio, is that David Gilliland's team got asked -- via team spotters -- for help in Logano making the playoff cut, by letting Logano around Gilliland late in the race. "They said they'd probably be able to help us in the future," the Gilliland audio went, referring to Penske Motorsports, and making pointed reference to "the big dog," apparently Penske himself.
Now making deals like that are nothing new in the sport. Happens all the time. This time, though, in the wake of the furor over the Waltrip teams' manipulations, that Gilliland-Penske deal didn't come across well at all. NASCAR CEO Brian France in fact was the one delivering the news, delivering the penalty for 'actions detremental to stock car racing.' And France added the curious point of effectively barring Penske from his usual perch in the spotter's stand, also banning digital radios up there.
Here Sunday, though, Penske, whose men are now on their second NASCAR probation of the season, insists "We obviously didn't do anything.....We didn't have any deal at all."
Penske says no such deal was made, and he tried to dismiss it all as a tempest in a teapot: "That's how people role-play stuff here in NASCAR. We're moving on."
On double probation, however....
Matt Kenseth (R) and crew chief Jason Ratcliff: laughing all the way to the championship? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)