JGR finds needed speed

Matt Kenseth during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on August 22, 2014 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Getty Images)

Matt Kenseth during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on August 22, 2014 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Getty Images)

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Finishing 38th in two of the last three events, Matt Kenseth expressed concern that his team’s performance needs to improve in a hurry to move from pretender to contender status. And the same can be said for his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch

“My confidence isn’t nearly as high with how we’re running at this point, this year, (compared to) last year,” Kenseth said. “We’ve just been off on speed a little bit, so certainly, with only three weeks to go to the Chase, even if all three of us get in, we realize that we all have to be running better to have a legitimate shot at winning it. We’re all working really hard at that.”

Kenseth and his teammates showed that missing speed in Friday’s first practice. Although he finished 15th, Kenseth had the fastest lap on the board late in the two-hour session. Hamlin (120.504 mph) ended up second to Kyle Larson (131.083) and Busch was seventh fastest.

Kenseth remains the top-ranked driver in points (13th) without a victory. But he doesn’t equate making the Chase with being a title contender.

“Just because you’re in the Chase doesn’t mean you have a chance to win a championship,” said Kenseth, who maintains a cushion of 30 points on Ryan Newman, 37 points on Clint Bowyer and 49 on his former teammate Biffle. “There’s going to be a lot of cars that get in the Chase that aren’t going to have a prayer of winning the championship. That’s the way it’s always been, and with 16 cars instead of 12 (qualifying for the Chase), there’s going to be even more of them.”

Larson’s Target Chevrolet was also fast in the second practice, winding up fourth on the chart behind Stenhouse (131.048), Jimmie Johnson and Kahne.

40-YEAR CELEBRATION

Richard Petty, who made a record 60 starts at Bristol, took a break from Friday’s activities to celebrate 40 years of STP sponsorship. The King posed for a commemorative “Class of 2014” photo with media members. … Ryan Truex, medically cleared to race after last weekend’s crash at Michigan left him with concussion-like symptoms, was 36th fastest in Friday’s first practice at Bristol. … David Stremme crashed his Little Joe’s Autos Chevrolet in the first practice when his throttle stuck. He did not get back on the track in either practice.

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