Poor Day Crushes Kenseth's Title Hopes

Matt Kenseth

A mistake-filled pit stop contributed to Matt Kenseth's poor finish Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway. (Photo: Getty Images)


AVONDALE, Ariz. - A championship race that was so close two weeks ago seems so hollow now.

Reigning champion Brad Keselowski said this week that the way to beat Jimmie Johnson was to run him hard, pressuring him.  That pressure seemed to strangle Matt Kenseth’s team.

Two days of practice wasn’t enough to remedy his car’s handling and a Keystone Cops-like pit stop doomed Kenseth’s title hopes.  He finished 23rd in Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway while Johnson placed third.  Johnson leads Kenseth by 28 points heading into next weekend’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Johnson needs only to finish 23rd or better next week to clinch his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.  While Johnson focuses on his task, Kenseth and his team can only wonder how they could have performed so poorly.

"We haven’t had a day like this all year," said Kenseth after his worst finish in this Chase.  "We just could never get it right."

After the race, crew chief Jason Ratcliff offered a mea culpa to the team.

"I apologize for giving you something like that," Ratcliff said to Kenseth before addressing the team on the radio.  "I apologize for a really poor job of executing.  I apologize to all of you.  We’ll go get them next week."

It was an awful race for Ratcliff, who grew so frustrated with his inability to make the right changes to help Kenseth’s car that he said over the radio on Lap 117: "I’m not going to work on it anymore.  The more I work on it, the worse it gets."

Kenseth said his car was so bad he didn’t know what to tell his team at one point.

"I’m so aero-tight," Kenseth radioed Ratcliff.  "I can’t even tell you how tight I am.  I need track position."

It got worse for Kenseth, who started 14th.  At one point, his car’s handling was so bad that Kenseth simply said on the radio: "Oh, gosh!"  He soon followed that by saying: "Will not turn at all.  Can’t keep up with the pack, so tight."

Kenseth’s car wasn’t as strong all weekend as Johnson’s car, a sign of what was to come in Sunday’s race.

"We missed it pretty bad, missed it all weekend," Ratcliff said.  "The car just wasn’t responding the way our typical Joe Gibbs Racing cars do.  I’m not so sure that our teammates didn’t fight something similar.  I can’t say it’s a bad car, but for whatever reason this tire package with our short-track package wasn’t good today.  We didn’t push the right button all weekend."

That wasn’t even the worst part of Kenseth’s weekend.  His problems intensified on Lap 164 with a mistake-filled pit stop.  There was confusion on the radio about if they would change two left-side tires or four tires.  Soon, the pit crew was standing around not sure what they were to do after conflicting orders from Ratcliff.  When they determined to change four tires, they had to back Kenseth’s car because he was on an air hose.

Kenseth entered the pits seventh - 19 spots ahead of Johnson.  Kenseth exited 29th - four spots behind Johnson after all the mistakes.

"The mix-up on pit road, that’s a perfect storm," Ratcliff said.  "You go to put left sides on and then nobody comes down pit road behind you and you’re thinking, 'Man, let’s just put four on,' but the bad part about it is you’ve already called 'lefts' and your guys have left-side tires in their hands.  Just a bad job on my part."

And a bad day all around, one that could keep his team from winning the championship.

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