Bad timing likely ends Kenseth’s title chances
AVONDALE, ARIZ. | Matt Kenseth did his best to put on a brave face following his worst performance of the season, which just happened to come at the worst possible time in his championship battle with Jimmie Johnson.
Dark sunglasses shielded the disappointment in Kenseth’s eyes when he climbed from his car. His voice cracked just once during what was clearly a concession speech. Instead of harping on the negatives — he was saddled with an ill-handling car all day at Phoenix International Raceway and every fix crew chief Jason Ratcliff attempted only made it worse — Kenseth focused on the positives.
His first season with Joe Gibbs Racing has been the best of his 14 years in the Sprint Cup Series. He won a career-best seven races, added a Southern 500 victory to his resume and crossed Chicago, Darlington, Kentucky and New Hampshire off the list of active tracks where he’d never won a Cup race.
And at 41 years old, a decade removed from his only Cup championship, Kenseth was in the mix again.
Although Kenseth is still eligible to win the title, his 23rd-place finish at Phoenix sends him into Sunday’s finale at Homestead trailing Johnson by 28 points. It would take a massive failure for Johnson not to win his sixth championship.
“You hope to go down to Homestead and race for it on performance,” Kenseth said. “On the other hand, I’m extremely happy. I’m really, really happy with my team. It’s a special group of guys. We’ve had just an amazing, incredible season and we still have one week left. Hopefully, we can go to Homestead and go down there and contend for a win.”
It was an admirable post-race performance on an abominable day for Kenseth and the entire No. 20 team that came out of nowhere at a time when there was zero margin for error.
The rest of the garage had noted from the opening practice Friday that Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team had shifted into another gear. Coming off a rout of the field at Texas, the No. 48 team gave every indication it was poised to do the same at Phoenix. Joey Logano said Johnson was in “kill mode” and Kenseth teammate Denny Hamlin sounded as if a Johnson title was inevitable.
With the pressure on, Kenseth had to be perfect. Instead, his car was terrible from the start.