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Matt Kenseth leads pack heading into NASCAR's playoffs

Matt Kenseth signs and hands out hats to the crowd as NASCAR drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship are introduced at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Va., Saturday, Sept. 12, 2014. Kenseth won the Federated Auto Parts 400. (AP Photo/Chet Strange)

BY LARRY HAMEL – For the Sun-Times

Heading into the first round of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup at Chicagoland Speedway, Matt Kenseth’s team is the envy of the 15 others eligible for stock-car racing’s version of the playoffs.

Kenseth, driver of the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing, rolls into the MyAFib-

Risk.com 400 on Sunday (2 p.m., NBCSN) in Joliet with eye-catching momentum. A dominating score in Richmond (leading 88 percent of the laps) in the curtain-closer of 26 “regular season” events gave the Wisconsin native three victories in his last six races.

The four Gibbs Racing teams — Kyle Busch (seeded second in the Chase), Kenseth (third), Carl Edwards (eighth) and Denny Hamlin (11th) — have been on such a collective roll that the perception among many pundits is they will race each other for the championship. Winning eight of the final 11 and having all four drivers not just Chase-eligible, but legitimate contenders, has put JGR front-and-center going into the three-race Challenger Round that will cut the field from 16 to 12.

“We have some fast Camrys,” Hamlin said after the Richmond race. “We just always seem to be behind teammates that win. That is good momentum going into the Chase; We can go on a roll there.”

Kenseth, 43, acknowledged in a telephone interview with the Sun-Times earlier in the week that his recent success has spurred optimism, but that it is tempered by the reality that the Chase’s three-tiered elimination format, instituted last season, can be fickle.

“Certainly running up front and winning builds confidence for everybody, as a group, as a team and as an organization,” said Kenseth, a two-time Daytona 500 champ and former Chicagoland winner (2013) who claimed his only points title in 2003, the last year before the Chase playoffs were launched. “But we are not overconfident. There always are things we can do to get better. We want to keep this momentum going, but we understand that every track is different from each other and presents a unique set of challenges.”

Are the four teams owned by Gibbs truly peaking at the right time?

“What you hope for — and we’re not there yet — is that all four of our cars get to Homestead [the last of the 10 Chase events] and race for a championship,” said Kenseth, who has campaigned under Gibbs’ banner since 2013. “The encouraging thing is that all of the cars have been competitive and all are capable of running up front. That is a great place to start. You don’t want to roll into the Chase thinking that your cars are too slow to keep up.”

The Daytona 500 might be NASCAR’s Super Bowl, but winning a season title in the Chase would be far more fulfilling for Kenseth at this stage of his career than putting another trophy from the 500 (he won in Daytona in 2009 and ‘12) on his shelf.

“Oh, it certainly would be a championship,” he said. “The 500 is a race that everybody wants to win, of course, but it’s one race To win a championship, it’s still a year’s worth of work to get to that point. Everybody’s ultimate goal is to be the champion of the series.”

Kenseth grew up in the Midwest and achieved early success racing late-model stock cars on short tracks in Wisconsin. He has lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, since 1997, when he hit the national scene racing on the Busch (now Xfinity) Series.

“NASCAR is not just a southeastern sport anymore,” said Kenseth, who remains true to his Cheesehead roots as a fan of the Green Bay Packers. “When you run down the bios of the drivers, you see they come from everywhere. OK, NASCAR might be a bigger deal in Charlotte than it is in Chicago. But we travel to all these different tracks spread out all across the country and we get great fan support everywhere.”

Follow me on Twitter @LPHAMEL.