KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Normally, 11th-place finishes don’t put smiles on Matt Kenseth’s face. But Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway was anything but normal.
It was, Kenseth said, “An incredible struggle.”
A struggle because of track conditions, cold temperatures and wind, the setup of his car and the new Goodyear tire which, officials had hoped, would produce good racing at recently reconfigured and repaved Kansas oval.
“We’ve been spoiled this year,” Kenseth, still, rather surprisingly, smiling, said. “I haven’t had to drive a car like that in a long time. Everybody’s on the same tire so you can’t blame that. It was just incredibly treacherous. I was just so loose I was ready to crash pretty much all of the race.”
Perhaps one of the reasons for Kenseth’s decent mood at his 11th-place finish – a finish which was by far his worst of the four Chase races held this year – was the fact that it in no way dealt him a knockout blow in the playoffs.
Because his chief rivals in the Chase also had odd days at Kansas, Kenseth was able to hold onto his points lead.
He will head to Charlotte Motor Speedway for next weekend’s halfway-point-in-the-playoffs race with a three-point lead over second-place Jimmie Johnson, who finished sixth at Kansas.
Kenseth’s lead over third-place Kevin Harvick, the winner of Sunday’s race, is 25 points.
No, those are not wonderful advantages for the 2004 Cup champion from Wisconsin, but he knows they could have been a lot worse.
“I feel lucky for not being wrecked and I feel really fortunate to still be leading the points. Not the day we wanted. But could have been worse.”
Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing team started the day from the seventh spot on the starting grid. From there it was just a day of yo-yoing.
He stayed near the front for the first third of the race and on lap 92, made a pass on Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead. He stayed up front until lap 113, stretch his advantage to over a second.
But on lap 112, the yellow flag waved – something that it would do a track record 15 times on the day – and Kenseth slipped to second.
Kenseth remained near the front until a caution was called on lap 136. He pitted in fourth place but was hit with a speeding penalty. He would restart 40th.
Kind of fittingly for Kenseth on this Sunday, the penalty did not deal him a major blow.
“I kind of got lost and sped on pit road,” he said, “which was kind of a stroke of good luck in a way because we knew we could come in and he (crew chief Jason Ratcliff) could really make the adjustments he wanted to make and take 30 to 40 seconds. Once that happened, it made the car better. Passed a lot of cars then and kind of climbed back in it.”
While the car was better, it was not where Ratcliff wanted it to be.
“We did some things you don’t know if it makes it better because of the dirty air,” Ratcliff said. “I think we made gains on it but what we really needed to do was go to our garage stall, put it on the scales on and change the springs and a lot of other stuff.”
Kenseth’s final stint in the race, he said, was his most gratifying. He restarted in 23rd place on lap 233 and quickly began moving forward. Ten laps from the end, he was up to 11th and had a top-10 finish in his sites as he moved in on Aric Almirola.
“I caught the 43 (Almirola) at the end,” Kenseth said, “and I was going to try to pass him and try to arc it into the corner a little bit more which I could never do all day but I had to kind of wave the white flag and try to finish as high as I could.”
Some days, 11th is good enough. Especially on days like Sunday at Kansas.
“I was over my head every lap,” he said. “If I’m a cat, I don’t think I have any lives left. I think I used them all up today.”
By Jim Pedley - Special to the NASCAR Wire Service