Dustin Long
Monday August 29th, 2011

A day before last weekend's night race at Bristol, Jeff Gordon was asked who he considered the championship favorites in a season that has seen 15 different winners. He began rattling off names.

"Certainly Kyle [Busch],'' said Gordon, who also sees his team as among the group. "I think Kurt [Busch] has shown at times to be really strong. You can't ever count out [Jimmie Johnson]. As far as Carl [Edwards] and [Kevin] Harvick, they are kind of hit or miss.''

A day later, the list changed after Brad Keselowski's second win in the past four races.

"They're, to me, as strong of a team out there that there is right now,'' Gordon said.

There's another name many are leaving out as a true title contender.

Matt Kenseth.

As anonymous as the person next to you, Kenseth often is overlooked because of his quiet demeanor on and off the track. Don't let that fool you. He clinched a spot in the Chase at Bristol, joining Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Johnson and Edwards as those who have secured a Chase spot.

There are signs that Kenseth not only should be considered among the challengers for the title but also considered among the main threats to end Johnson's five-year reign.

Gordon sees them. He's talked about how his team has developed into a championship team during the summer. As he's progressed, he's seen a familiar face.

"Me and Matt have been racing a lot lately,'' Gordon said. He and Kenseth combined to lead more than 60 percent of the Bristol race on Saturday night. "You look at the Brickyard, Michigan and a lot of race tracks, me and Matt have been really battling. I guess that's a good thing because Matt has been running up front a lot this year.''

Kenseth is having one of his best seasons in recent years, sitting third in the points. He has not been this high in the points after 24 races in a season since he was second in 2006. He would lead the points with three races left in the Chase that year until Johnson finished the season by placing second, second and ninth. Johnson beat Kenseth for the title by 63 points.

Kenseth's two wins this season have come on tracks that will host a Chase race -- Texas and Dover. Also, Kenseth's record on 1.5-mile tracks has been impressive this season. That's important with half of the 10 Chase races running on 1.5-mile speedways. He's finished no worse than 14th in the five races on those tracks. He's placed sixth or better in three of those races. This weekend at Atlanta will provide one final 1.5-mile test before the Chase begins.

But with two races left before the Chase, Kenseth isn't as focused on the 1.5-mile tracks -- the Chase opens at Chicagoland, a 1.5-mile track, next month -- as he is with all aspects of his team.

"You want to run good every week and be feeling good about it,'' said Kenseth, whose sixth-place finish at Bristol marked the fifth time in the last 10 races he's placed sixth or better. "You don't want to have a rough three weeks and be going to Chicago on a down note and be like, 'OK, we didn't have a good three weeks, but we are going to Chicago and are going to flip the switch and turn it around.'

"I think you want to run good every weekend and everybody feels better about that and gets confidence and a spring in their step. They feel like they are a contender. I don't think it is make or break but I think it would be nice to have that attitude and feeling and have everyone excited to feel like they are part of a group that will contend."

Another factor is Kenseth is high on his pit crew. He said he felt their performance at Michigan was "the most consistent and fastest day they have had.'' Kenseth lost the lead on pit road on his first stop at Bristol but his pit crew recovered to help him get the lead three times after pit stops in that race.

Thus, there are signs suggesting that Kenseth can challenge for the title. Just don't tell him his team is peaking.

"I don't think you ever want to peak,'' he said. "I think you want to get better every week and keep improving. I think everybody in the garage basically does that. If you look at track records falling and qualifying times picking up every time we go back to a track, you can see everybody gets constantly better. I think you just have to gain more than the rest of the competition. That is always the goal."

That's the goal for Kenseth and one he could achieve this season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. could end years of frustration by clinching a spot in the Chase this weekend at Atlanta.

Earnhardt is ninth in the points heading into Sunday night's race. He's 39 points ahead of 11th place in the standings. He'll clinch a Chase spot if he leaves Atlanta 49 points ahead of 11th place in the season standings.

It would mark the first time in three years Earnhardt has been in the Chase and only the second time in the last five years.

Making the Chase is not enough for Earnhardt, though.

"That is your ultimate goal to get in the Chase at the start of the season,'' he said. "It is important to us all on a professional level. On a personal level, I don't really know how much it matters to me. Making the Chase is just an afterthought.

"I really want to win the championship, you know. Making the Chase is great and all, but as a person, you want to be the champion. Making the Chase doesn't really make you feel better at the end of the season. If you don't win a championship, you are really disappointed."

Unless something drastic happens, Earnhardt will make the Chase. The question is if he's truly a title contender? He'll have 10 weeks to prove that.

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