AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Roughly two months into the season, Mark Martin was having a conversation with Matt Kenseth about the fast start to Kenseth's year. Kenseth had grabbed two wins in his first eight races with Joe Gibbs Racing, and Martin believed his former teammate could have legitimately won all eight of the events.
"I expected him to win races and be awesome and be Matt Kenseth, but the start he had, he could have won them all. Bar none. That was staggering," Martin recalled. "And I remember last year when he was getting ready to leave, he was scared to death. I liked that about him. I liked the fact that he was scared.
"So I like what I see right now. He's living a dream and hitting his full potential, and you don't always get an opportunity to hit your full potential."
It truly is a dream year for Kenseth, who has won a career-best seven races after jumping to JGR following 16 years driving for Jack Roush.
Now, 10 years after winning the only Cup championship of his career, Kenseth is in the thick of another title race. He goes into the penultimate race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway trailing Jimmie Johnson by seven points in the standings.
It's not a surprise that Kenseth is in the championship picture. After all, he finished second to Johnson in 2006 and has made the Chase every year since its 2004 launch except for 2009 — the year he won the season opening Daytona 500 and the next week's race at California.
What is a surprise is seven wins from a driver who has built a career on consistent finishes. Kenseth's previous best was five wins in 2002, and he had settled in as a driver content to win a handful of races a year.
So if you'd asked him in December, as he climbed into his new No. 20 Toyota for JGR for the first time, if he ever imagined what was to come, there's no way Kenseth could have known the spoils ahead of him this season.
"It would have been hard to believe somebody if they said we would have had seven wins and done some of the things that we did this year in our first year together, because throughout my whole career I've never been able to do that," Kenseth admitted.
But part of that may have been because of the ups and downs of the Roush-Fenway Racing organization. Although his JGR team had been through four underachieving seasons with Joey Logano, the No. 20 car won two championships with Tony Stewart and the organization routinely contends for titles with Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.
Now with Kenseth in the mix, those who have raced against him since his 2000 Cup rookie season believed anything was possible.
"You never know how somebody's going to transition into a new team," said four-time champion Jeff Gordon. "You look at that team in past years, they certainly haven't shown to be a threat for the championship. But I feel like from Matt's talents and capabilities, while they might have been diminished slightly with his results at Roush, I think that a lot of us within the sport knew just how good he was.
"You put him with the right equipment, the right team, the crew chief that he gels with, he can put up some great numbers, and that's what he's doing this year."
The 41-year-old Kenseth is probably one of the most underrated drivers by fans in NASCAR.
His win at Darlington this season gave him another NASCAR crown jewel, adding the Southern 500 to a collection that already includes two Daytona 500 wins, a Coca-Cola 600 victory, a Bristol night race and a win in the All-Star race. The only major missing on Kenseth's resume is the Brickyard, and of the six active tracks where he's yet to win, the only glaring weakness is that two of the venues are road courses.
With 31 victories, he's 22nd on the career wins list — fifth among active drivers — and 15 Hall of Famers rank ahead of him.
"He's all business and being all business, he doesn't get as much attention as someone who is colorful," Martin said. "There are guys that don't make a lot of noise, that just do their job and get it done, and Matt is one of them. A smart racer, one of the best that has come along in my era."
Team owner Joe Gibbs said there was a good deal of internal stress after signing Kenseth in making sure the organization could support him. He was paired with crew chief Jason Ratcliff, who had been promoted to the Cup Series only one season earlier with Logano and didn't have a win at NASCAR's top level.
"You are wondering how are those guys going to fit? A crew chief is so important, chemistry is so important," Gibbs said. "I think it is a real tribute to Matt and Jason, the way they've worked at it, and nobody would have dreamed this could have happened in the first year."
To the point that Kenseth is basically playing with house money right now.
Johnson may very well win a sixth championship and Kenseth could end up falling short in this title race to a driver who will go down as one of the best in NASCAR history. But regardless of how it shakes out Sunday at Phoenix, or after next week's season finale at Homestead, Kenseth can only look back at 2013 and marvel at what he accomplished.
"No matter how it ends up, it's been a great season, absolutely," he said. "Before the Chase started, it's been a great season. After we won the first two (races) of the Chase, I said that no matter what happened in the last seven, it was still going to be a great year. It's funny how your views and your goals and what you want to accomplish change. It's kind of a moving target.
"If you don't end up winning the championship, it's hard to not be just a little bit disappointed when you're in that spot because you just don't get that many opportunities to win it. But for sure, no matter how it ends up the next two weeks, it has been an unbelievable year."