An veteran of 22 seasons and 677 races with 193,281 laps to his name, Matt Kenseth, a few hours away from lining up for his 19th NASCAR All-Star Race, is reading from an old article highlighting his victory in the Can-Am 500 at Phoenix Raceway on November 12, 2017.
“I’ve got to be honest with you, I never dreamed I’d win one of these races, so obviously I’ve been so incredibly blessed throughout my whole career,” read the line Kenseth focused on, the victory being the 39th and most recent NASCAR triumph of the 2003 Cup champion’s career.
Despite everything the Wisconsin-born wheelman had achieved, he was still not taking any of his success for granted.
“I guess growing up and being in Wisconsin driving short track cars and stuff like that, I didn’t really think I was ever going to be a NASCAR driver or even a successful NASCAR driver,” says Kenseth. “I guess none of that stuff was ever on my mind, to be honest with you. Yeah, it’s certainly been a lot more than I ever could have expected. I never really expected to go do all that and to have success at it. NASCAR racing, especially back when I first started, was a southern sport and a long ways away from Wisconsin.”
By now we all know why Kenseth is out of retirement. Called back onto the grid when Chip Ganassi Racing had an unexpected need to replace Kyle Larson in April, Kenseth, who hadn’t raced a complete season since his parting ways with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2017, was leading a relaxed life and looking at the past through rose-colored glasses before the phone rang.
“I think it’s funny how everybody is wired a little differently,” Kenseth says. “I guess most competitive people are wired somewhat like this. Unfortunately, though, when you’re doing it, when you’re out there and racing, you tend to agonize over the ones that you lost more than you celebrate and be happy about and think about the ones that you won. It’s unfortunate that it is like that, but it really is. I mean, I still have nightmares about losing the 2016 Daytona 500 late in the last lap going into turn three trying to make a block move that I needed to make, and ended up 14th. Those things are really hard to win, and you don’t get many chances. So there are races like that that always stick in your mind and are hard to get out
“For sure, having my year off was good for me, and I really enjoyed traveling around with the kids last summer and spending time doing things with my family. I was able to do things that I didn’t really get to do for a lot of years due to being on the road every week. The break kind of gave me some rest, too. I think mentally and physically, after doing the grind for 20 years, to have that time off to unwind and not have any stress or any pressure allowed me to regroup and to get rested up and recover, and it was really good for me.”
Kenseth started his comeback tour when NASCAR went back to racing at Darlington on May 17, where he shrugged off being thrown in at the deep end and earned a remarkable 10th place finish. Fifteen races into NASCAR’s heavily modified 2020 schedule, Kenseth sits 28th in Cup series points.
“It’s been a challenge for a lot of reasons, but I think having time off, having a different rules package, different team, different cars, different crew chief, all that stuff has been a learning curve and a process,” he says.
“And it always is when you make changes, but it’s such a unique set of circumstances now in life that you just can’t do things. You can’t really have team meetings, you’re not having any practice, and you’re not working with your guys after practice and talking about things. Everything is just a lot different than what it ever was, and I think that makes the adjustment process harder and longer. Overall, I’ve had a lot of fun so far. We don’t really have the results that we want up to this point, but I feel like we’re really gaining on them and we’re really close to having a breakout and starting to run up front, and getting back to where these guys deserve to be running at.”
Kenseth draws encouragement from the three-race run spanning two races at Pocono and one at Indianapolis, in which he placed 11th, 12th and second.
“it felt like with both Pocono races that we definitely ran better,” he says. “Indy, we ran good. Last weekend at Kentucky we don’t really have a result for a multitude of reasons, but I felt like we performed really, really well and would have finished well if we ever would have gotten in the right position. I felt good about that. I feel like we’re kind of on the right track, so hopefully we’ll got to Texas and perform well and start getting some results.”
Kenseth’s late race run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway very nearly resulted in career race win number 40 and was an extraordinary results with lifted more than a few eyebrows in the NASCAR garages.
“We were very competitive at Indy,” he said. “The car just wasn’t fast enough to get the 4 (Kevin Harvick). Indy is a difficult place to pass. We were stronger in certain areas than he was, but the areas where he was a little bit stronger made it very difficult to try to get a run and be able to pass him. I just couldn’t really get the runs that I needed to get to be able to pass those top few cars. But overall, it was a solid day.”
Being teamed with another veteran in Kurt Busch has been another variable in the calculus of Kenseth’s return to form.
“Having Kurt there is one of the big reasons I decide to go do this,” he says. “He’s obviously a great driver, and one of the best teammates that I‘ve ever had. I was excited to come over here and work with him again. He’s always a big help. The traditional sense of having a teammate right now is tougher just because we don’t have practice. That’s typically when you help each other the most. You’re working with each other and talking about how changing the cars, and how that stuff affected it, and all that kind of stuff.
“You know, at times, it has been a little tougher than I thought,” continues Kenseth who has been locked in step with talented crew chief Chad Johnston since Darlington.
“I will say that, coming in, Kyle Larson and I were kind of opposites. I feel like his strong suits were probably my weakest suits, and that has sort of proven to be true. I guess the thing that maybe I underestimated a little bit was that without practice and without time to be able to work on things, it’s hard to get to that baseline. How do you get there? You go race and you get done and you take the best notes you can, and the next time you’ll have a chance to make one change and make it better, but the track can be different when you happen to go back again. That’s taken some time. Typically, in a normal weekend, you would get 10 or 12 practice runs and you kind of get a feel for things and make some changes and try to get better and go from there. Here in 2020, you don’t really have a shot at that, so that made it really challenging for Chad, because he’s never worked with me and kind of had to learn what I like and what my feel is, and all that kind of stuff. He’s been working really hard, and I feel bad for him because they were running pretty good, and it’s been a challenge to try and figure me out and figure out what we need to make the cars go fast for me.
“I’m encouraged, and we have some big races coming up before us. Texas is going to be tough to pass with the package we have now. We’ll kind of see how that goes. We’ll see how are mile-and-a-half stuff is, and I’m looking forward to going there. And New Hampshire has been a really good track for me the last five or six years, and I look forward to going out there, and hopefully we’ll have a decent baseline and we’ll be able to put together a good race there.”
Kenseth’s focus remains on the immediate future, but questions about his plans for 2021 are already popping up. He’s not biting.
“Yeah, it’s probably a little too early to tell right now,” he says. “We haven’t really had much discussion about that. Really, we’re just trying to look at one week at a time and to try and get this thing rolling and to try to the job to the best of my ability and to start to get the results for the No. 42 car that they need. That’s really what my focus is right now. We just want to get some results.”