Kenseth talks about playoffs, his future
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-
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.
Matt Kenseth circles Chicagoland Speedway during Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice for the playoff opener.