Kenseth talks about play­offs, his fu­ture

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - SPORTS - DAVE KALLMANN

JOLIET, Ill. - Al­though his racing ca­reer may be near­ing its end be­fore he’d have cho­sen, Matt Kenseth says he has noth­ing to com­plain about.

The 2003 NASCAR cham­pion and two-time Day­tona 500 win­ner hasn’t been to vic­tory lane in 14 months, and he’ll be re­placed by Erik Jones in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toy­ota at sea­son’s end.

But Kenseth is in play­offs, his team’s per­for­mance is on the up­swing and he says he’s keep­ing his fo­cus on try­ing to fin­ish his five-year ten­ure at Gibbs on a high note. And in 18 full-time sea­sons in NASCAR's top di­vi­sion, the 45-year-old from Cam­bridge, Wis., does have 38 vic­to­ries — 14 with Gibbs and 24 with Roush Fen­way Racing — plac­ing him 20th on the all-time win list.

The 16-driver, 10-week Mon­ster En­ergy NASCAR Cup Se­ries play­offs be­gin Sun­day with the Tales of the Tur­tles 400 on Sun­day at Chicagoland Speed-

way.

In a quick Q&A be­tween prac­tice ses­sions Saturday, Kenseth dis­cussed his year to date, the fi­nal 10 weeks of the sea­son, changes in the sport over his 21 sea­sons and what his long-term fu­ture might hold.

Q. The reg­u­lar sea­son ... how do you feel about it? Sat­is­fied? Frus­trated? Some­thing in be­tween?

A. From a pure per­for­mance as­pect, we got run­ning bet­ter. The last few months I feel like we’ve been pretty com­pet­i­tive; we were just in such a hole early in the year. With all the DNFs and all the prob­lems we had, we re­ally didn’t get any stage points. A lot of DNFs this year, which has been frus­trat­ing. There have been a cou­ple of races I feel like we had a shot to win if ev­ery­thing would have lined up, and it didn’t. So a lit­tle bit of frus­tra­tion along the way, but we’ve been run­ning bet­ter.

Q. The sea­son does typ­i­cally have its peaks and val­leys, so does that mean you feel pretty good about per­for­mance as the play­offs start?

A. Yeah, pit road, the last few weeks have been bet­ter than prob­a­bly we’ve ever been. Our cars have more speed as a group. All our cars are pretty fast now. We’ve got to get a lit­tle bet­ter. We’re not as good as the 18 and 78 and some of those guys once in a while. We need to get a lit­tle bit bet­ter. But I feel pretty com­pet­i­tive. You just don’t know what’s go­ing to hap­pen (in) these three races (of the first play­off round). The way the points work, if you’re pretty far be­hind the top few cars, maybe you can get some stage points, get a win.

Q. We talk every year about your three goals: get a win, make the play­offs, win a cham­pi­onship. You’ve got one. How re­al­is­tic, how hope­ful are you, of achiev­ing the other two?

A. Well, I’m re­ally hop­ing to win a race. It’s been a long time since we’ve won. It’s been way too long. If we could win a race sooner than later, cer­tainly it would give every­one some con­fi­dence, get ev­ery­body feel­ing bet­ter, feel­ing like a con­tender. Win­ning is al­ways great for ev­ery­body. Get­ting a win would be big right now.

Q. I imag­ine I know the an­swer, but has any­thing changed about your fu­ture since the last time you were asked?

A. Hah, no. I kind of de­cided once the play­offs started, as long as we’re alive in the play­offs, I’m not go­ing to talk about next year at all. I’m not go­ing to worry about it. But ev­ery­body else likes to ask about it. I’m just not go­ing to talk about it any­more un­til the sea­son’s over. But as long as we’re alive in the play­offs, I’m go­ing to try to keep the fo­cus on that.

Q. You seem like you’re re­ally com­fort­able in life at this point. Is that just part of life, of get­ting older?

A. I don’t know it has any­thing to do with that. Just ev­ery­thing is re­ally good at the mo­ment. The kids are happy and healthy. I’m hav­ing a good time with them. I’m driv­ing for the fastest team in the sport. Man, I don’t know if I have any­thing to be un­happy about. Ev­ery­thing’s go­ing pretty good right now.

Q. In the pre­sea­son, you men­tioned hav­ing the “how do you know?” con­ver­sa­tion with Carl (Ed­wards) and Jeff (Gor­don). …

A. How do you know?

Q. … How do you know when you’re ready (to be done).

A. Are you try­ing to talk about next sea­son again?

Q. No. Not next sea­son. Big pic­ture. Whether it’s two years or 10 years or when­ever.

A. I haven’t had any con­ver­sa­tions re­ally with any­body about any of that kind of stuff.

Q. OK, five years down the road, 10, when­ever … do you en­vi­sion your­self in­volved in racing or af­ter all these years do you en­vi­sion your­self step­ping back and mov­ing on with what­ever?

A. Once I don’t drive, I don’t know what I’m go­ing to do, to be hon­est with you. I do not en­vi­sion my­self be­ing at the race­track at all. But I’m not sure ex­actly what I’ll do. I will say it’s fairly busy around my house just be­ing Dad and get­ting to ac­tu­ally be home and raise your kids. I’m good with that.

Q. The busi­ness in your 18, 20 years, has changed con­sid­er­ably. How hard have you tried — or have you tried — to mar­ket your­self, to give your­self some­thing to take to a team be­sides a ré­sumé and your tal­ent?

A. (Laughs.) I don’t think at all. I think my hands are pretty full try­ing to drive a race car. Every owner that’s hired me has hired me to drive a race car and try to win races and try to be suc­cess­ful on the race­track. I feel like I’ve done that. Cer­tainly I feel like we’ve built a lot of good things at JGR. That car wasn’t win­ning races and we won a bunch of races made it a con­tender again. Got some spon­sors re­newed. At­tracted some new spon­sors. So I feel like we’ve done a lot of good things there.

Q. Sim­i­larly, the sport con­tin­ued to evolve. As a guy who was so hand­son, are you frus­trated that this has be­come more and more of a sci­ence fair?

A. No, not at all. It’s re­ally been at least the last decade or more, it’s been less hands-on. You’re not go­ing to pick out what to put on the car. They’re go­ing to fig­ure it out on the com­puter, in sim­u­la­tions, stuff like that. It’s been that way a long time. A long time.

Q. The talk re­cently has been about com­pet­i­tive bal­ance. Toy­ota started — what? — 1 for 10 and then has won six of the last nine. What do we make of that?

A. I don’t think it’s nec­es­sar­ily man­u­fac­tur­ers. Brad (Ke­selowski, a Ford driver) has been whin­ing and cry­ing about it just be­cause he thinks if he puts enough pres­sure on they’ll ac­tu­ally make a rule change that would help him. So right now — hon­estly, I would tell you this no mat­ter who I was driv­ing for — the par­ity, the cars are closer to the same speed than they’ve ever been since I’ve been a part of racing. They’re all so close to the same speed. It just de­pends on who’s run­ning it. Last year, a cou­ple of years ago, the Fords were so fast. Roush was strug­gling but Penske was so fast. And this year, the 42 (Kyle Lar­son of the Chip Ganssi Racing Chevro­let team) has been fast and Hen­drick (Mo­tor­sports) has not been as fast, and ev­ery­body’s got the same en­gines and ev­ery­thing. It’s much more of a team thing than a man­u­fac­turer things. NASCAR’s got it nailed down where they’ve got it so close to the same. The dif­fer­ences are just minute.

Q. The fact that it be­came a Twit­ter ex­change (be­tween Ke­selowski and Toy­ota driver Kyle Busch), how does that com­pare to how the lob­by­ing was among own­ers and driv­ers and man­u­fac­tur­ers a gen­er­a­tion ago?

A. I didn’t re­ally watch any of it. Brad’s been cry­ing about it for a cou­ple of months. That’s the same guy that af­ter the 600 told Kyle when he was a kid he was taught to work on his race car, from his dad, not to sit and whine about who’s beat­ing him. Now he’s do­ing the same thing. It’s kind of funny if you look up that quote. It’s kind of ironic that he’s the one now who’s mak­ing all the noise. It’s dif­fer­ent. Every gen­er­a­tion is dif­fer­ent in what they’d like to do and how they com­mu­ni­cate.

Q. You’ve said be­fore these things are a lot more fun when you’re not in­volved. Did you get a chuckle out of that yes­ter­day?

A. I didn’t see it. I just knew that he said some­thing about the par­ity is worse than it was in the ‘70s or some­thing like that, which is pretty com­i­cal.

Q. You’re a foot­ball guy, so let’s try this anal­ogy. When­ever you’re done, are you more likely to go out like Pey­ton Man­ning or Brett Favre?

A. What does that mean?

Q. Favre wasn’t do­ing a whole lot at the end. Man­ning was a Su­per Bowl champ.

A. I don’t know. I don’t have a crys­tal ball. I can’t pre­dict the fu­ture. I can’t pre­dict that.

Kenseth

KIM KEMPERMAN / FOR THE JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

Matt Kenseth cir­cles Chicagoland Speed­way dur­ing Mon­ster En­ergy NASCAR Cup Se­ries prac­tice for the play­off opener.

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