Composed Kenseth Ready for Finale
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on November 16, 2013 | 12:42 P.M. EST
Matt Kenseth has scored a career-high seven Sprint Cup victories this season and starts from the pole for Sunday's race at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Photo: Jeff Wackerlin)
HOMESTEAD, Fla. - For as much anger and frustration boiled within Matt Kenseth, his voice remained calm. A rotten Sunday drive was over. His championship hopes all but dashed. It has been 10 years since his only Sprint Cup title and unless Jimmie Johnson has a dramatic problem Sunday, Kenseth’s drought will continue.
Before he stopped his car on pit road after last week’s race at Phoenix International Raceway, Kenseth told his team there was no other group he’d rather be with - a group that has given one of his best seasons in racing, if not his best.
Still, the pain remained from the lost opportunity. When he climbed from his car, his pain intensified. “The hardest part,’’ Kenseth later said, was seeing team members and their blank looks.
“That kind of burned in my mind for the week,’’ he said. “That was as disappointing and devastating a look as you can see on anybody's face, and I felt like I did that. I felt awful about that.’’
An ill-handling car and a comically poor pit stop conspired to doom Kenseth at Phoenix, leaving him 28 points behind Johnson entering Sunday’s EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson needs only to finish 23rd or better to clinch his sixth title. Kenseth has outscored Johnson by 28 points twice this season.
Kenseth, though, remained grounded after the Phoneix race. He didn’t lash out, didn’t throw a fit, and didn’t pout. It’s the same reserved approach he’s shown all these years. Still, it’s in one’s toughest moments, not their best, that often reveals their true character. Kenseth proved what he’s shown for years was not an act.
“He keeps his composure and does a really nice job of putting things into perspective,’’ crew chief Jason Ratcliff said. “I think a lot of that, again, is from his experience, but at the same time I think that's Matt's personality. I think he takes things in and thinks through them very well, and in the end he knows that nothing positive is going to come from getting out of the car and stomping his feet, even though that's really what he wants to do.
“I've worked with a lot of different drivers, and that's something that was very inspiring for me as well as this race team. When you have a driver like that, I mean, that leads by example with that type of composure in the midst of adversity, it just goes a long way.’’
While the odds are against Kenseth, he still has a chance to win the Cup crown. That’s more than every other driver but Kevin Harvick.
That doesn’t take away what was lost at Phoenix. A spectacular season could be tarnished by one afternoon, but that’s the Chase. A team needs to be all but mistake-free for 10 weeks to win the title. One bad race could keep Kenseth from celebrating a title. Will that diminish what he’s done in his first year at Joe Gibbs Racing?
“It's the first time in seven years I've had a mathematical chance to win the championship still getting to Homestead,’’ Kenseth said. “No matter how you look at it, it's been a great year.’’
It started in a coffee shop where he and new crew chief Jason Ratcliff met to discuss philosophies, setups and gameplans after last season. The meeting went well, but still few could predict Kenseth was on his way to a career-high seven victories.
Kenseth dominated the Daytona 500 before an engine problem sidelined - what would a re-occurring theme in the first half of the season for Toyota Racing Development.
Two weeks later, Kenseth won, scoring the victory at Las Vegas. The victories kept coming. Nearly one a month before winning back-to-back races to open the Chase.
Even with the steep challenge he faces this weekend, Kenseth has been strong. He won the pole for Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400. He was fast in Saturday’s first practice session.
“I'm hoping we can put together a really good effort here this weekend and finish the season off on a positive note no matter what happens with the points,’‘ Kenseth said. “Hopefully we can finish it off with, if not a win, a good top-five finish and go run good and lead some laps and do the things we know we can do.’’
Kenseth admits regardless what happens this weekend, he can’t wait for the start of next season. He’s not alone. Ratcliff also is anxious for 2014.
“I think next year is going to be a great season for us just like it has this year, but I'm looking for bigger and better things,’‘ Ratcliff said. “So you win seven, possibly eight races in one season, how are you going to better that? Well, when somebody asked me early on this year how many races did I think we can win, I'm like, well, I hate to sell myself short, I really think if we can come out of the box strong, we can win three or four. Well, guess what, I sold myself short.
“I think we can match what we've done this season and maybe even improve that by a large amount. We have high expectations. We have reasons to believe that we can be as successful as anyone. One thing that we're very confident in is that we can go out year in and year out and battle for championships, and that's a good start for us, and I think we've got many great seasons ahead of us.’’
Motor Racing Network – “The Voice of NASCAR” – will have live coverage of Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 from Homestead-Miami Speedway at 2 p.m. (ET), with live streaming at MotorRacingNetwork.com.