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Kenseth, Busch and Hamlin aren't sweating slow starts -- yet

Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 20 JGR car, is tied for 20th place in the Cup standings through four races. Jerry Markland/Getty Images

TORRANCE, Calif. -- Matt Kenseth had spent two hours signing autographs for Toyota employees, getting encouragement from fans and joking around with his teammates surrounding him. Relaxed despite having a cold, he seemed in a pretty good mood.

Even a question about whether he has looked at the points -- he sits an uncharacteristic 20th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup standings after four races -- elicited a humorous response.

"I haven't really looked at points," Kenseth said. "Because I don't really have any to look at. There's really no reason for me to look at them."

Kenseth, with his dry wit, might have said that whether he was in a good or bad mood. But his feeling that the slow start isn't anything to get too worked up about resonated among the Joe Gibbs Racing veterans who are in the same position as they prepare for the Auto Club 400 on Sunday at Auto Club (California) Speedway.

Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin sit among three drivers tied for 13th in the standings while Kenseth and rookie Daniel Suarez are tied for 20th. Among the eight drivers in the series who have earned a playoff point -- a point that drivers carry through the resets of the first three rounds of the playoffs -- only Busch has accumulated one for JGR.

They have plenty of time to situate themselves among the series elites on paper as 22 races remain in the regular season. Only one driver has even more than five playoff points (the amount a driver gets for a win), and that is Martin Truex Jr. with seven. Truex, a pseudo-teammate to JGR as a driver for JGR affiliate Furniture Row Racing, has looked strong, as has his teammate Erik Jones.

Busch, who hasn't won in 20 races dating back to last season, has seen enough to call it a good start to 2017. Things just need to go the team's way.

"We had good speed," Busch said after finishing third at Phoenix in a race he led 114 laps. "The thing [Sunday] was fantastic in the long runs. It was really, really good. It had some good speed to it, especially when we got out front. ...It seems like every finish that's destined for us, we tend to get a worse finish."

Hamlin doesn't have a top-5 yet this year. In the past two races, he has posted a sixth at Las Vegas and a 10th at Phoenix. That only lifted him four spots in points as he earned just two stage points -- points awarded during the first two segments to drivers in the top-10 across the line.

"I'm frustrated a little bit with where we're at, but I know that we're running significantly better," Hamlin said. "Where we're struggling right now is getting stage points. We're lacking in the stage points department.

"We are finishing races strong, but it just doesn't pay off as good as it has in year's past. ...I'm frustrated, but I look at how far I'm back, and I'm like I can make that up in one weekend."

All he needs to do is look at Busch for proof. Busch used those stage points to his advantage last week. Although he saw a win slip away thanks to a late caution, he still finished third and earned 13 out of a possible 20 stage points. That allowed him to move from 19th to 13th in the standings in one week.

Kenseth finished third at Atlanta and then recorded a ninth at Las Vegas before a 37th-place finish at Phoenix, where he blew a tire and smashed into the wall at Lap 190. Kenseth, 45, said he felt fine -- he wasn't sore at all -- after the accident, caused by a melted tire bead.

"We ran really well at Atlanta but had some problems," Kenseth said. "We ran terrible at Vegas [where] we finished OK. We ran terrible last weekend [at Phoenix]. At Daytona, we got in a wreck.

"It's obviously been a bad start. I don't need to look at a paper to know that."

What does the paper with those points mean? Last year at this time, the top nine drivers in the standings all made the playoffs but only three drivers ninth to 16th made the 16-driver playoffs. But with the new points system including the stage points, any correlation to this year and years past won't serve as a great predictor.

"It's too early for [looking at points until] Charlotte," said Busch, indicating that nearly midway through the regular season will start a closer analysis of the points sheet. "Getting through California [this weekend] is always a good basis because you get a couple of different tracks in the beginning of the season. ...Once you get through California, you kind of know who the players are going to be.

"We kind of already know who those guys are."

JGR certainly has a reason why it could have gotten off to a slow start. The Toyota teams have a new body, with a significantly different nose, and NASCAR went to its second version of a reduced downforce package.

Because the car was not publicly unveiled until January, the Toyota teams couldn't openly test with the new body style. Kenseth conducted the first at-track test in January at a Goodyear tire test at Las Vegas.

"We [at JGR] had cars run good the last two weeks, so I don't know that it's a global thing or we just missed it," Kenseth said.

The Fords have appeared as slightly above the rest of the field over the opening month of the season as they have four of the top eight spots. Three Chevrolet drivers -- including both Chip Ganassi drivers -- rank in the top-eight as well with Truex as the only driver in a Toyota.

"We're not bad," Hamlin said. "Some other teams made some pretty good gains in the offseason. ...Last week, we raced a lot faster than what we practiced.

"I'm not overly concerned with the speed. I'd definitely like to see us faster in practice because I think that would be a pretty good indicator of where you're at in raw speed."

After California this weekend, drivers will have competed on a high-banked 2.5-mile track, a 2-mile track, a pair of 1.5-mile tracks and a flat 1-mile oval.

"I feel like you have a good idea by the time you get to Easter where you're at with your program, but I don't know that it really changes much," Kenseth said. "You're always trying to move forward.

"There are always weeks where you find things you need to work on probably harder than maybe you thought."

And there are always times where a driver has to handle a slump or a series of races where the finishes don't represent the performance. Kenseth has learned from those times how to handle this type of start.

"I've probably done better over the years of spending time trying to do better at things that you can control and not worrying about the things that you can't," Kenseth said.

"There's nothing I can do about the last four or five weeks anymore except to try, if there is anything you did, try to learn and get better."