Steady. Not spectacular.
For many, it sums up Matt Kenseth’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career. His 2003 championship, fashioned with one victory and 25 top-10 finishes, seemingly validated that conclusion.
Until this year, the 41-year-old veteran’s first driving the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Through the regular season and into the first eight races comprising the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff were the gold standard with JGR’s new Gen-6 Camry.
Kenseth won five races, entered the Chase as the No. 1 seed then captured the postseason’s first two stops at Chicagoland and New Hampshire Motor Speedways. He raced fender-to-fender with five-time Jimmie Johnson until last Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway where his mount — as well as those of his JGR teammates — lost the handle.
A 23rd-place finish, and a 28-point deficit to Johnson, didn’t end Kenseth’s quest for a second NASCAR Sprint Cup title. But realistically, all the Wisconsin driver can hope for is a dominant performance in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway coupled with trouble for Johnson.
“I’m disappointed, obviously with the way our season has gone and kind of being in the championship hunt,” said Kenseth. “We’ve really been taking this Chase one week at a time, and you just never know what’s going to happen in the end.”
The upside is that 2013 is not Kenseth’s last and best hope for a second championship. JGR is one of NASCAR’s premier organizations — and became even stronger with Kenseth’s move from his longtime home at Roush Fenway Racing.
Toyota and Gibbs hit the pavement running with the Gen-6 car.
Thus it wasn’t surprising that a driver with Kenseth’s talents and experience would thrive.
“I think since the day I walked into Joe Gibbs Racing I felt really good about everything that they had going on there,” Kenseth said. “I felt good about everything I saw there and the more I got plugged into that probably the better I felt about it.”
Kenseth’s strength lay not in winning poles but by recovering from mediocre starting positions. Taking a while to reach the front of the field but being in contention at the end of the race always had been his stock in trade. His career average finish is more than four positions higher than his average start.
That’s not the case in 2013 during which Kenseth has recorded two of 10 career poles and posted an average start of 8.9 vs. a career number of 18.6. The 1,639 laps led in 2013 equates to 19% of his career total.
“We were qualifying up-front every week [and] we were in position to win races,” he said.
Kenseth’s seven victories is a career best, two more than the five times he won in 2002.
Whatever happens Sunday, Kenseth figures to go forward into 2014 with a spirit of optimism.
“We’ve been working hard at it and we’ll give it all we’ve got,” he said. “No matter what happens in the end, it has just been an incredible year and really magical no matter what the outcome is after Sunday’s race.”