We all knew that Matt Kenseth was going to get to Victory Lane eventually in 2016 … we just weren’t sure when.
Kenseth felt the same way.
“I feel like the way we’ve been running, eventually the law of averages is going to work out, you’re going to get your wins, your finishes,” Kenseth said following the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Dover International Speedway last Sunday. “It’s going to happen sooner or later.”
And it did.
Twelve races into a long, tumultuous season for Kenseth and his No. 20 team, the 44-year-old drove into Victory Lane in Dover for the 37th win of his career and third career win at Dover.
It didn’t come easy. Kenseth was one of a handful of drivers with a car capable of winning. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski all led more laps than Kenseth (Kenseth led 48 laps) and many others spent a handful of laps out front.
However, several cautions – including an 18-car accident on lap 356 when Jimmie Johnson was unable to get up to speed on a restart – gave Kenseth a front row starting spot as the end of the race drew closer. Add in a late-race wreck by teammate Carl Edwards, and Kenseth was one of the best cars left on the lead lap.
Larson was going to have something to say about that, though. The race restarted with 34 laps to go with Kenseth and Larson running first and second. Kenseth was able to keep his lead, but not without a heck of a fight from Larson. Larson got right up to Kenseth’s bumper and even alongside the No. 20 with just a handful of laps left, but was never quite able to clear him for the lead. Ultimately, Kenseth was the victor by a mere 0.187 seconds.
“We were really good,” said Larson post-race. “We were better than Matt (Kenseth) there. A lot of good cars got wrecked which was
nice and I knew I was going to be the car to probably beat. I got to second there on the restart and just tried to be patient. I could see Matt was pretty loose in front of me. I was just waiting for him to make a mistake and he did make a couple of mistakes, but it’s so hard to pass somebody on the bottom here because they can suck down on your door on exit and slow you down.”
Kenseth, for his part, was extremely complimentary of the 23-year-old and believes that Larson will continue to be a factor on the track for many years to come.
“I think if he would have snuck inside, it would have been over,” said Kenseth. “He raced me really, really hard, but clean at the same time. He’s a great race car driver. To me it doesn’t even seem right that he hasn’t won yet. He’s got a bunch of victories in front of him for sure. He’s a really, really, clean hard racer, and a fast learner.”
While Larson said that racing Kenseth with respect was important, he certainly did seem to be questioning that decision post-race.
“I was probably a little too patient in the beginning and allowed Chase (Elliott) to get close to us and actually get by me,” said Larson. “I don’t remember how I got back by him, but I did get back by him and we raced pretty hard there for a few laps and Matt got out a good bit. I didn’t think I would catch him, but I got another shot at him at the end and was trying to do all I could to pass him without getting into him. Matt, except for a couple of instances last year, he is probably the cleanest driver out here. I wanted to race him with all that respect and felt like I did a good job. I probably could have got into him in the middle of (Turns) 1 and 2 there once and maybe got by him, but I didn’t want to do that. Looking back maybe I should have because I could be in the Chase right now, but we will just keep working hard. We are getting some really good cars built at our shop now. We struggled to start the season, but Jamie (McMurray) and I both have been pretty fast here the last few weeks. Hopefully, we can keep it rolling. I know we have a new car for next week and the (Coca-Cola) 600. Try and put it all together and get into Victory Lane.”
Larson’s clean racing allowed Kenseth to pull away to the victory.
Now, Kenseth and his team can focus on moving forward, as they now hold a virtual lock on a Chase position when the cutoff rolls around in September. Additionally, Kenseth’s win now means that all of Joe Gibbs Racing’s cars have visited Victory Lane at least once. In fact, this organization continues to dominate, having now won seven of the 12 races run this season.
Kenseth arguably could have won any one of those first 12, but various circumstances kept him out of Victory Lane – everything from pit road penalties to wrecks not of his own doing. Kenseth had led 350 laps before last Sunday’s race at Dover but had never quite sealed the deal with the very last one.
“I would say as good as we have ran, that is probably the longest streak I can remember being on without having any real good finishes,” Kenseth said post-race. “ We finished fourth last week, that was the first top five of the season. As good as we’ve ran all year, like I said, with having cars that fast, not being able to get better finishes or maybe a win or two.
“I have all the confidence in the world in these guys,” he continued. “Obviously the organization is strong. Everybody else has won races. I don’t think there’s a better crew chief in the garage than the one sitting next to me (Jason Ratcliff). I felt like it was a matter of time. But you can never take it for granted. I still got to go out and do the work every week and make it happen.”
Ratcliff agreed that, while this season has been challenging, there has been a tremendous amount of confidence because the team has been running well – even if the finishes didn’t show it.
“It’s a character builder, that’s for sure,” said Ratcliff. “It will test your patience. But at the same time each week, you know what’s good, I’ve said this a lot of times, the core group that’s on the No. 20 team, most of them, if not all of them, have been in this sport for a long time. They understand. They thrive on how well we perform each week, not necessarily where we finish.
“But eventually, you know, that wears on you. So last week to get a top five and then to come in this week and get a victory, it’s
definitely what we’ve been waiting for. I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys. Most of the time, I think it’s my responsibility to keep them motivated, but more times than not they keep me motivated. Great group, hard workers, they’ll take this one and be chomping at the bit to get another one next week.”
Team owner Joe Gibbs agreed.
“You got four teams out there,” he said. “You walk out to the racetrack, to have what happened to Matt at Daytona, to see the way he handled that, he and Jason, I think that says a lot about him because you could easily be upset about that. But Matt’s had a great attitude through everything. I think he does appreciate good cars, having a great crew chief. So I think that’s what we’re trying to do. The hardest thing in pro sports is to stay up because you know it’s so easy to slide back down. That certainly has happened to us. You go against such good people each week, it’s very hard to do. For Matt to hang in there, he and Jason, the whole team, the No. 20 team, finally get a win, is just a huge deal for us. I was really happy for him.”
Now the question is how far Kenseth and the team can take this. How many wins can they get? Teammate Kyle Busch has three victories. Carl Edwards has two, and Denny Hamlin has one with his Daytona 500 victory. Clearly the JGR camp has showed a propensity to visit Victory Lane multiple times. Again, Kenseth could arguably already have multiple victories. Who is to say he doesn’t get any two or three more wins before the Chase?
Next week is the Sprint All-Star Race so, even if Kenseth does win, it won’t count towards his Chase bonus points when the field is set. But, really, if you aren’t betting on Kenseth moving forward, maybe you should re-evaluate. Now, it feels like the No. 20 is on the upswing – which, considering their performance already, is a scary proposition for the competition.