By Jeff Wolfe
Matt Kenseth seems to have the skill of taking a less than ideal situation and turning it into a pretty good one.
Earlier this season, it was announced that the NASCAR Sprint Cup driver would be leaving the only team he’s known, Roush Fenway Racing, for Joe Gibbs Racing next season. Still, Kenseth went out and was one of the 12 drivers to qualify for the Chase for the Championship.
Then once the Chase started, Kenseth ran into some bad luck and found himself in the 12th and final spot in the standings. Yet, he went on to victory at Talladega two weeks ago.
Then came Sunday’s race at Kansas when the driver of the No. 17 Ford hit the wall about two-thirds of the way through the race. It would seem that his chances for victory had been eliminated. And while that would seem like a less than ideal circumstance, in the end it worked to Kenseth’s favor as he was the fastest off pit road on the last necessary caution needed for fuel. That put him in the lead for good as he led the final 49 laps of the 267-lap, 400.5-mile race on the 1.5-mile oval.
“I got into the wall with about 80 laps to go and we had to come in get the fenders off and fix it up,” said Kenseth after his first victory at Kansas and his third of the year. “Then when we made that last pit stop, I didn’t need as much fuel as everybody else and it was a great pit stop.”
Kenseth wasn’t sure how bad the damage was to his car, and wasn’t sure how well the crew could fix it. But crew chief Jimmy Fennig gave Kenseth a bit of pep talk to reassure the veteran who has been with Roush-Fenway Racing since he was a rookie in 2000.
“He didn’t say it but he was probably thinking I should stop whining about it,” Kenseth said. “He said it was fine. I knew I hit it really hard but thought it was centered up in the door real good and we had a similar thing happen at Homestead last year. As soon as we got the fender back where it was supposed to be it was fine. I was happy as hard as I hit it that my steering wheel was still in the right place.”
Kenseth wasn’t the only one to hit the wall on the first race on the track since it was re-paved following the Spring race. Several cars had their right-front tire go down, which largely contributed to the season and track-high 14 yellow flags that led to 66 caution laps.
“I’m ready to go home and have a couple of beers,” said a relieved Brad Keselowski, who has a seven-point lead over Jimmie Johnson in the points race after finishing eighth Sunday. “It’s just a long day. Everybody was asking all season where the cautions have been. The answer is they flew to Kansas and they’ve been hanging out here. It seemed like every caution today happened right in front of me. We dodged a bullet of race.”
Not everyone was as fortunate as Kenseth, or even Keselowski. And one of the least fortunate drivers on the day was Aric Almirola. The driver of the No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports had one of the strongest cars early in the race and led 69 laps on the day. He first smacked the wall on lap 121 while leading. Repairs were made and he returned to the track, but then spun out on a Lap 173 restart while battling Mark Martin for the lead. After pitting under green and losing a lap, then getting the Lucky Dog, Almirola hit the wall again due a right front tire going down on lap 213, putting him out for the day.
“I am disappointed,” Almirola said. “I have never in my entire life had a race car that good. It was so fast and so easy to drive. All the guys on this Farmland Ford Fusion did a great job and we just had a really great race car. All the guys worked really hard all weekend and we had a spectacular car. I hate that it ends like this but I have always been told you have to give a few away before you can win one and I feel like we certainly gave one away today.”
Johnson, who also rallied from a crash to finish ninth, felt the same way as he led 44 laps. But his result could have been much worse, too.
“That’s pretty tore up,” said Johnson after surveying his No. 48 Chevrolet that could have had a brand of duct tape as a sponsor. “I’m definitely proud of this team that we never give up and try to get any points that we can.”
But Johnson also saw it as lost day in in the points race.
“I crashed the car,” he said. “I was trying to get inside the 56 (of Martin Truex Jr.). He bobbled a little in front of me and I thought that was an opportunity to jump on the gas real hard. When I did that, I couldn’t catch it. I thought I could’ve been to Victory Lane and stretched some points on these guys.”
The rest of the top-10 in front of an estimated crowd of 78,000 following Kenseth was Truex Jr. in second, Paul Menard, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Regan Smith, Keselowski, Johnson and Jeff Gordon.
Kahne, who started on the pole, also felt he would have had a shot for the win if not for an electrical failure when his car didn’t restart after he turned the engine off to save fuel.
“It just wouldn’t refire,” he said. “I’m disappointed, but, we got up through there and had a good car. We passed a lot of cars. There was a lot of tire and fuel strategy throughout.”
And for Kenseth, a lot of celebrating for at least one more time while driving for owner Jack Roush. It’s something the 40-year-old Wisconsin native isn’t taking for granted as he enjoyed his 24th career victory, tying him for 26th on the all-time list with Kyle and Kurt Busch.
“I will say you never know when or if your next win is,” Kenseth said. “Like I always am, especially as you get older, you really appreciate it more. I’m really thankful and humble to be sitting up here honestly. It’s just a pleasure to drive that stuff. We still have some races left we want to win. I just think it says a lot about these guys sitting here.”
Kenseth’s next opportunity to win will be Sunday at Martinsville, the seventh race of the ten-race Chase, at 2 p.m. on ESPN.