Matt Kenseth is an emotional guy. He just doesn’t let the public see it.
But when the 45-year-old clinched what could be his final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win on Sunday, he let loose. Emerging from a cloud of tire smoke on the frontstretch, Kenseth celebrated on top of his Toyota Camry to cheers from the grandstands and with tears in his eyes.
To some, he might have looked like a big baby. “But [I] just got one race left and everybody dreams of going out a winner,” he said.
Not that Kenseth wants to go out at all. Since he revealed in July he was out of a ride at Joe Gibbs Racing, the 2003 Cup champion has made it known he still wants to race. A quality ride just isn’t available, and Kenseth believes he still has the ability to contribute to a team through wins and championships.
So breaking a winless drought that dated back to July 2016, in his second-to-last week in a series to which he’s given his all since making five starts in 1999, was overwhelming.
“It’s just been quite a journey and today was a really special day for me, to know that next week is almost for sure my last week behind the wheel. … I probably knew around August that it really wasn’t meant for me to be racing anymore at this level going forward,” Kenseth said.
“I probably fought it for too long and kind of looked at different opportunities and thought that doing something different, but then just really embraced it. And not many people get to go out in really good cars and win races and have a chance to win a championship. It’s really a blessing to be able to go to work every day and work as hard as you can on it, put everything into it that you’ve got and finally get on here [today].”
Phoenix was Kenseth’s 39th career win and his second at the 1-mile desert track. The No. 20 team was eliminated from the NASCAR Playoffs in the last round, disqualified at Kansas Speedway for having seven crew members work on the car while under the damaged vehicle policy.
It has been a trying year for all. After JGR got out of the gate slow, the speed and performances most are accustomed to seeing eventually returned. Kenseth’s numbers entering Phoenix were nothing to turn a nose up at – two poles, 16 top-10 finishes and 359 laps led.
Except Kenseth has never settled for good. The drive to win races is as strong as ever and Sunday, he got to experience that feeling one last time.
“We’ve had a lot of close ones … I felt like the snowball was here last fall – we were 10 seconds away from going to the Championship 4 and caught that late caution and get wrecked on that restart,” Kenseth said. “Ever since then, just never feels like it’s meant to be and today was definitely meant to be.
“We made it happen, the guys made it happen on pit road and got me in front of (teammate) Denny [Hamlin], which was a key moment of the race and thankfully I was able to get back around Chase [Elliott] there at the end. So, it was a pretty special day.
“Hard to describe.”