HOMESTEAD, Fla. — The year that Matt Kenseth described as “unbelievable” ended one position short of the ultimate goal — the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
But that didn’t stop Kenseth from enjoying what he called the best year of his racing career. At the age of 41, he showed that his somewhat controversial move from a long stay at Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing was not only smart but very close to brilliant.
The 2003 champion fell 19 points short of winning a second championship, leading the circuit in victories with seven and riding in the top 10 in points for the last 30 races of the season.
After a nearly disastrous race last week at Phoenix, Kenseth knew the odds were stacked very high against him as NASCAR made its final seasonal stop at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Eventual champion Jimmie Johnson needed only a 23rd-place finish to lock up his sixth title and Kenseth needed something of a miracle to supplant him atop the standings.
That miracle didn’t come (Johnson finished ninth), but it wasn’t for the No. 20 team’s lack of trying.
Kenseth won the pole, led the first 11 laps of the race, led the most laps (144) and thrilled the grandstand crowd by battling Dale Earnhardt Jr. for second place over the closing laps. Kenseth won that battle while losing the war.
“You never concede it to them (the 48 team) until it’s done,” Kenseth said. “They just seem to be able to raise the bar. If they don’t have any kind of problem, they’re capable of winning every week. If they don’t win, they’re going to finish in the top five.”
Kenseth again called this his best season, despite the fact that he won the series championship in 2003. “We didn’t come up with the championship — the championship is the ultimate goal,” he said. “You always want that, but from a competitive standpoint, it’s been by far the best season of my career. We led the most laps, qualified the best, most wins, all that stuff.”
The closeness of the Johnson-Kenseth battle was illustrated late in the race on a green-flag restart when their cars clanged together as much of the field scattered in the first turn. Both cars had minor damage.
“I didn’t even know we had contact on the restart,” Kenseth said. “It was the weirdest thing. I got off the gas not to wreck. I got hit in the right rear. If it was Jimmie, I had no idea until you just told me. I didn’t know where he was.
“Jimmie and that team are obviously unbelievable. Never seen anything like this in the sport and probably will never see anything like it again. It’s amazing with as tight as the rules are, multi-car teams, information sharing and all that stuff. It’s amazing they can figure out how to do that year after year.”