For much of Saturday night, it seemed to be shaping up for Matt Kenseth not only to lose his spot on the Monster Enegery NASCAR Cup Series playoff grid but to do so to the driver who’s taking over his car next season.
Yet somehow that didn’t even cross Kenseth’s mind as he battled with Erik Jones in the late going at Bristol Motor Speedway. Fortunately for Kenseth’s postseason hopes, Jones finished second as Kenseth wound up fourth and jumped to 15th on the playoff grid with a 61-point margin over the cutline.
“Honest, I would have liked to see Erik get the win. It would have been fine with me,” Kenseth said. “I wasn’t really thinking about the playoffs. It would have been another one of our cars with a win, put another JGR, Furniture Row Toyota on the playoff grid.”
Two races remain before the 16 drivers competing for the championship are set. Three spots are unfilled, and if those are taken at either Darlington (Sept. 3) or Richmond (Sept. 9), one driver will earn a spot based on points.
While Kenseth says he doesn’t know where he sits, nor does he look, the No. 20 team is starting to peak at the right time with five top-nine finishes in the last six races.
“If we do get in, we’re running a lot better as of late,” Kenseth said. “We’ve had some solid finishes, last week (24th) wasn’t but we’ve definitely been closer to being in contention for wins. So, I do feel like if we get in, everybody on the team’s performing really well right now.
“We had great pit stops. Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) made some good adjustments tonight, kept us toward the front. I do feel like we have a little bit of momentum at the right time. We need more, but I feel like we have some at the right time if we can get in (the playoffs).”
Kenseth picked up an additional playoff point at Bristol by winning the race’s second stage. Staying out under a caution near the end of the stage, Kenseth led the final 11 laps. Under the caution at Lap 252, he was then called for speeding and had to restart at the tail end of the field. It didn’t take him long to rebound and wind up in contention for the victory.
However, the final run to the finish of 79 laps was too tough on Kenseth’s car. As his Toyota got tight, Kenseth put up a valiant and entertaining fight with Jones for a few laps over the second position. Eventually he just “couldn’t really do much with it.”
As Kenseth answered questions in his post-race press conference in the media center, sitting next to Jones and even ribbing him about taking his ride and making on-track contact, his positive attitude didn’t go unnoticed. Perhaps it seemed a bit odd since Kenseth is working on a 41-race winless drought and also doesn’t have anything lined up for next season.
But the 45-year-old said he has nothing to be unhappy about.
“I’ve never really been in a better place. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier,” Kenseth said. “There’s more to life than racing. Yeah, I wish it kind of maybe would have went down a different way or maybe I had another year or two there. That’s not the way it worked out. I think everything happens or doesn’t happen for a reason. It will all become clear.
“I’m pretty happy. I’m not really worried about it. Certainly, I wanted to win tonight, though. I’d be happier if I would have won. Yeah, I’m pretty happy. Thanks for noticing.”