In the Fast Lane column for Sunday, Oct. 26, 2008.
Matt Kenseth, NASCAR's last champion before the Chase format, is out of contention for this year's crown.
With 5,665 points, he's 408 behind leader Jimmie Johnson after a few hard-luck finishes since the cut was made at Richmond. But Kenseth remains upbeat about the remaining races, including today's Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"It's a lot better to be in the Chase than out of it," said the 2003 champion. "There are 30 guys we race against every week that didn't get to make it, so I think it's great we made it. I wish things would have gone better up to this point in the Chase to where we were a contender, but, overall, it's been a pretty good year."
That said, Kenseth has all but conceded the title to Johnson.
"I'm not going to beat him," he said. "I think where Jimmie's at right now, if they don't make a mistake, I think it's theirs to lose. I don't think anybody can win on pure performance right now. They've run way too good. I just don't think anybody's going to beat them by 10 or 15 spots a week, or whatever it would take to beat them, so I just don' think that's going to happen."
Kenseth is winless this season and only has four chances left to pick up a W in 2008.
"I hope (we can get a win) but just about every week we go to the track, I feel like we've got a team that's capable of winning," he said. "We just have to figure out how to put it all together. I feel good about them all. Phoenix is probably our weakest link. Hopefully our stuff will run good at all of them."
Like most drivers in the top 10, Kenseth wouldn't mind if qualifying was rained out every week. It has the last three weeks in a row and four times during the Chase.
"I'm fine with not qualifying every week," he said. "We're not very good at it usually, although our qualifying has been much better this year. This has been probably one of my worst tracks for qualifying and one of my better tracks for racing, so if we could start toward the front, that would be alright with me."
When a team gets caught doing something outside the rules, all members of that team are tainted by the trouble, even if they had no part in it.
Brian Vickers' Red Bull Toyota team was penalized this week when the sheet metal on his Camary did not meet minimum thickness requirements.
Vickers appeared on the Sirius NASCAR Radio's Tradin' Paint show on Friday and said he was embarrassed by the infractions.
"It's never been the way that I've operated in my racing career," said Vickers. "Heck, it actually could be the very first time this has ever happened to me. ... Unfortunately, it's a very isolated incident in which a few individuals made bad decisions and I'm not even sure what they were trying to do because what was done really wasn't an advantage."
Initial reports were that the metal had been acid-dipped but Vickers said that was incorrect.
"Just the wrong sheet metal was purchased and used and that's the bottom line," he said. "And it wasn't that thin. All in all, it was, maybe, if you really wanted to stretch the numbers, five pounds of gain. ... In a 3,500-pound car, that's not a lot."
Vickers was having a solid season, running 15th in points before the penalty. He's now 17th.
"I'm a little frustrated to lose the points, more than anything," he said. "We've worked so hard to get them and then what makes it even more frustrating is to lose them over something that wasn't even an advantage."
Jane Miller is the Journal Star motorsports columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.