Kenseth making his debut on perhaps NASCAR’s biggest stage

BRISTOL, TN - AUGUST 18: Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 DEWALT/Flexvolt Toyota, stands by his car during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on August 18, 2017 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Prior to the postponement of NASCAR due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Matt Kenseth was living a quiet life. After parting ways with Roush-Fenway in 2018, where he had a part time role. The Wisconsin native was living the role of former driver turned suburban dad whose biggest challenge was training for marathons.

Then his world changed, almost overnight it seemed. While NASCAR was shut down, most drivers took to racing on the internet. One driver, Kyle Larson, was heard uttering a racial slur during a game, and all heck broke lose.

When the dust settled, Larson was out of a job and Chip Ganassi Racing needed a driver.  Kenseth got the call.

He will make his debut with the team Sunday at Darlington in a race that will have no practice or qualifying. His Ganassi debut will come on a stage that perhaps will be one of the biggest NASCAR has ever had thanks to the dearth of professional sports in the world right now.

That means Kenseth will be making his start in a car he’s never raced, and as it turns out, one that Kenseth has had very little discussion with his new team about.

“Chad (Johnston, crew chief) assures me it’s going to be perfect,” Kenseth Thursday showing that his dry midwestern humor is still very much intact.” I leave that job to him, the engineers and everyone here at CGR. They’ve ran really well at Darlington in the last two years, so I’m thinking they’re probably not going to veer too far off of that. I think you’ll run those first thirty laps and you’ll get kind of the extended caution there to be able to make some small adjustments and go from there. So, I don’t think it’s really different from what they ran there last year or maybe even the year before.”

Unlike other drivers, Kenseth jokingly admitted he’s spent very little time in a simulator in preparation for Sunday’s race.

“About fifteen minutes or so,” Kenseth said when asked how much time he’s put in.  “There are a lot of good things about it, but it’s still not exactly the racecar.”

“I’ve been doing as much as I can, as far as being prepared, looking at data and reading notes. Going to the simulator was one of those boxes that I wanted to check. So, I did go over there to drive it and make a few runs at Darlington to just kind of drive it, feel comfortable and all that stuff. I didn’t really spend an extended period of time there because, in my mind, it’s still not like driving the racecar. There are a lot of things that are very similar, but a lot of things that are different as well. I did spend a little bit of time there, but not a lot.”

That means when the field gets the green and heads into the first turn there will be a lot of uncertainty., but that doesn’t worry Kenseth.

“Nobody has been in a car in a while,” he said. “Certainly, it’s been longer for me. I think the biggest difference for me, also, is that I haven’t driven these racecars or for this team. So, there are a few more unknowns. I’m not sure how exactly everything is going to feel and all that kind of stuff. There is certainly a little bit of anxiety for those first few corners to kind of get rolling and get used to things. At the same time, everybody is going to be ready to pounce.”

Kenseth said he expects other drivers will give him no quarter.

“I don’t expect people to be taking it real easy or maybe giving you a bunch of extra room or anything like that,” he said. “You certainly don’t expect any kind of special treatment. You know everyone is going to be out there ready to pounce on whatever spot they can, so you just have to be smart. Especially for me, just be smart and get through those first bunch of laps to get in a rhythm, get a little bit of room to move around, breath, get kind of acclimated, and go from there.”

No matter the outcome Sunday, the racing will continue, and the season will move forward. It’s a chance for Kenseth, a former champion and winner of 39 races at the Cup level, to show that he still belongs in NASCAR’s Cup series. That, however, isn’t foremost on his mind.

“Right now, I’m not really looking too far beyond Sunday, to be totally honest with you,” he said. “Certainly, the learning curve is going to be steep. I know being out of the car that long, starting with a different team and piling on top of not being able to practice for the foreseeable future, or testing and anything like that, is going to be very challenging.

“But I’m really excited. I have to admit, I’m just as excited as I’ve been to go racing in many, many years. So, I’m really looking forward to getting to the track. I really like this group of guys, the cars look nice, the Camaro looks like they’re really fast, so I’m really looking forward to it. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity, I just know that it’s going to be a big challenge. I’m going to have to work hard and do my best to try and take advantage of the opportunity.”

Greg Engle