By Chris Knight
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
Even though the six-time and defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus led No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet team have yet to win a race and essentially lock themselves into the Chase this year, Johnson relayed a firm message at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway this weekend.
"Honestly, the way I see it is we're locked in the Chase right now," said Johnson, whose recorded three top fives and five top-10s entering Sunday's Aaron's 499. "If it were to end where we are in points, we're in the Chase. And I've been trying to explain that to many people through interviews and other things and sure, we want to win. We feel like we could have won a few times. But as of right now, we're locked into the Chase. So I don't know what the big concern and worry is."
While Johnson's point makes sense, the proof is in the facts.
By this time last year, Johnson had already been to victory lane twice, along with four top fives and six top-10s and sole possession of the championship point's lead. However, with NASCAR's new version of the Chase emphasized around winning and the No. 48's team inability to score Johnson his 67th career win, not to mention being buried eighth in the championship standings, the lowest he's been since Talladega (April) 2012, the pressure to do something that so many people and his fellow peers are accustomed to seeing may be mounting.
Life good for Logano
Team Penske driver Joey Logano has every reason to be loving life right now.
Last Saturday night at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, Logano powered to his second victory of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season and virtually assured himself a berth into this year's edition of the Chase. But, it's the confidence gleaming from the 23-year old that makes a statement that the driver of the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford Fusion is in no way ready to bow down and relax.
"Obviously, the last few weeks have gone well," offered Logano. "The chemistry keeps building -- myself and Todd Gordon (crew chief) are clicking right now and he's giving me what I need and I've been able to do my job. That's why you see those race results there. We're able to build off a year of getting to know each other and being able to use that to our advantage now."
Through nine races this season, Logano has already tied the number of wins he earned in the last two seasons combined. With four top 10s in 10 starts at the 2.66-mile superspeedway and his continuing wave of momentum, Logano should be considered a contender Sunday afternoon.
"Here we are nine or 10 races into the season and to already have a couple wins, but to be able to really focus on getting the Chase ready -- I'm not saying that we're coming here all lackadaisical and don't care, I still want to go out there and win and I know my team does. We want to keep that momentum just because we want to have the ball rolling and have that momentum by the time the Chase comes."
Kenseth needs more than consistency
The move to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013 without question paid off for Cambridge Wisconsin's Matt Kenseth.
After 15 seasons at Roush Fenway Racing, the 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion fell perfectly into place behind the wheel of the No. 20 Dollar General / Home Depot Toyota Camry. Three poles, seven wins, 12 top fives and 20 top-10 runs enroute to a competitive third place finish in the championship standings left a lasting impression heading into his sophomore season.
But, in a year where winning has never been more important, a repeat dominance from Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff has yet to materialize. While the duo has shown serious consistency through the first nine races of 2014, Kenseth's season-best finish of fourth twice, not to mention an absence from victory Lane, has left him an outsider looking in.
"I know it's not always the popular answer, but I still stand by that I just don't think it changes the racing," said Kenseth when referring to the impact of winning. "I don't think it changes the winners, I just think it changes the reward you get for winning. All these races are really big races and everybody wants to win them.
"I don't see anybody showing up in May and being like, 'Man, I hope I run 10th today.' Everybody goes out and does everything they can to win these races each and every week no matter what the reward is and no matter what it pays, points or any of that stuff. They're all big races and everybody shows up every week to try to win."