Matt Kenseth’s Phoenix win was redemptive, yet slightly bittersweet
By John Haverlin
November 14, 2017
One year ago, a dejected Matt Kenseth left Phoenix Raceway with a 21st-place finish and a shattered hope of making the Championship 4 for the 2016 NASCAR Cup Series title.
He led 55 laps at the desert oval that day and was en route to his third win of the season until a late caution occurred as a result of Michael McDowell spinning in Turn 3 seconds before he would take the white flag.
The race went to overtime and Kenseth chose to restart on the outside of Alex Bowman, who struggled to get through the gears down the frontstretch. He dove to the bottom of the track to block Kyle Busch, but Busch gave him a shove, which shot the No. 88 up the groove and into Kenseth’s rear.
The No. 20 spun and hit the wall, and just like that, his dream of a second Cup championship was dashed.
Although Kenseth has never been astounding at Phoenix, he does now have two career wins in 30 starts. He said the one-mile track has always been a “really confusing place” for him, but he’s shown a plethora of speed there the last two seasons.
“We can go from being pretty competitive to running really bad,” he said. “It’s always hard for me to figure out. Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) and I were talking about that yesterday. Last fall we had a car that was going to win the race, and this spring I feel like we ran just horrible, ended up blowing a tire I think and not finishing.”
On Sunday, his car was as good as ever, and he finally earned a finish to represent that.
“We had the feel that I wanted, and it turned good, and kind of did all the things you want it to do at Phoenix,” he said.
Had Kenseth won the race last November, he could have had a different ending to 2016, and he might have championship No. 2. As a driver and a competitor, he’ll always want the way that race ended to have been different that what it was.
“You always wish that you’re in the four cars at Homestead to have a chance for a championship,” he said. “We’ve never quite had that happen, but we’ve had a few years we certainly ran good enough to do it and just circumstances got us last year. But you have three chances every round to get in. Last year, we just never quite made it.” There’s no way to change the past or know what could have been, but one thing is certain: his first win of 2017 was one of the feel-good moments of this Cup season.
“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,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. “You know, to be able to have such a long season and kick it off like this, a lot of things I don't really understand, but I probably knew around August that it really wasn't meant for me to be racing anymore at this level going forward.”
If he won another championship while driving for Joe Gibbs before this season, the way his career is ending might have been put off another few years. He still feels he has a couple of wins left in him and virtually the entire NASCAR community would agree.
“It's not that there hasn’t been any opportunities and nothing opened, it’s just nothing really felt right to me,” Kenseth explained in regard to driving for a new team in 2018. “Throughout my career and my life really, there’s certain things that you know is right and things line up and it's just kind of easy, and then there's things that you can fight, and at the end of the day, it just wasn't the right thing.
“If anything, it just reaffirms my decision to step away next year, honestly. Like I said, there’s not a lot of people that get to go out like this. It was a special, special day and I’m looking forward to next week and hopefully trying to race them again one more time.”
If Sunday’s victory was his final, he’ll end his career with 39 wins, the 2003 title, and 650 starts.
That’s worthy of a place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. But there will always be this question: Is there anything he could have done differently to make himself a multiple-time champion?
DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.