The 2016 season for Matt Kenseth was serviceable, if a slight step back from his five-win 2015 campaign. But despite that solid effort, Kenseth’s lasting memories will be his collapses on the sport’s biggest stages.
Entering his fourth season with Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth appeared poised to deliver Coach Joe Gibbs one of racing’s ultimate prizes – the Harley J. Earl trophy – as a Daytona 500 champion.
In search of his third victory in “The Great American Race”, Kenseth led the field to the white flag, and as far as turn 4 of the final lap. But a late decision to attempt to block surging teammate Denny Hamlin’s run on the outside lane proved disastrous. Hamlin dove under Kenseth’s No. 20, surging forward and left the 17-year Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series veteran without a drafting partner.
Hamlin drove off to Daytona glory. Kenseth, on the other hand, dropped all the way back to 14th.
Kenseth didn’t fare much better in the weeks after his Daytona heartbreak, scoring just two top 10s in the first 10 races while his JGR teammates combined for five victories.
The 2003 MENCS champion dropped as far back as 18th in the series standings during that stretch, prompting media and fans to ask why he struggled while the rest of JGR prospered.
Fortunately for Kenseth, his No. 20 team began to pick things up as spring transitioned to summer. The Wisconsinite finished fourth at Kansas Speedway in May, then got the better of Kyle Larson the following week at Dover International Speedway to claim his first win of the year.
From that point on, Kenseth largely reverted to 2015 form, earning seven top 10s and a second victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to build momentum for the upcoming Chase.
Once the playoff arrived, Kenseth shined. With most of JGR’s hype tilting to teammates Busch and Hamlin, Kenseth quietly delivered one of his best Chase performances to date, earning seven top 10s and four top 5s in the opening eight races. That established himself as a Championship 4 contender entering the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix International Raceway.
Then, much like in Daytona, it all fell apart in the final seconds.
Kenseth held a dominant lead in the closing stages of the event when a late caution allowed the field to close up to his bumper. Kenseth chose the outside lane on the ensuing restart, a move that would ultimately prove dire.
With part-time driver Alex Bowman to his inside, Kenseth attempted to drive to the bottom of the track going into turn 1. The two drivers made contact, and Kenseth was sent up into the outside wall.
Just like that, his Chase was over.
Kenseth ended the year with a solid seventh-place run at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but it didn’t matter. With all title hopes gone, the memory of his Phoenix crash lingered into the postseason, though teammate Edwards’ championship-ending wreck of his own in the season finale overshadowed it.
While the ending was rough, 2016 remained a serviceable year for Kenseth by most metrics. The veteran’s early struggles stunted some of his year-ending stats, but Kenseth’s two wins over the summer and impressive Chase run inspire hope for 2017.
At 44 years old, more of Kenseth’s career is in the rear-view mirror than the windshield. That he continues to contend for victories and championships 13 years after his first title is impressive.
Still, 2017 will bring about a few questions.
JGR has the blessing of an incredibly deep talent pool that includes incoming Furniture Row Racing rookie Erik Jones, 2016 XFINITY Series champion Daniel Suarez, dirt track ace Christopher Bell and ARCA Racing Series hopeful Riley Herbst.
Kenseth’s current contract is set to expire at the end of 2017. Given his age, it’s possible that 2018 could see the veteran sent away from the organization in favor of Jones, Suarez or another star.
The No. 20 team also finds themselves with a bit of a sponsorship dilemma.
Dollar General, who have sponsored Kenseth since his move from Roush Fenway Racing to JGR in 2013, announced during the season they won’t be returning to NASCAR in 2017.
DeWalt will take over primary sponsorship of the No. 20 in Dollar General’s absence, gracing Kenseth’s hood for 15 races in 2017. However, Kenseth’s sponsorship for the the remaining 21 races has yet to be announced.
Given those financial troubles, paired with Kenseth’s age, 2017 could well be his final year with JGR.
If that thought proves true, how Kenseth performs in the coming year will likely play into the overall opinion of this season almost as much as 2016 itself.
Regardless of how 2017 and beyond play out for Kenseth, 2016 will be remembered as a year of heartbreak on NASCAR’s grandest stage. But if the veteran can contend once again in 2017, it might take some of the sting out of his close calls this season in much the same way as Jeff Gordon’s surprising 2015 Chase run relieved the pain of his 2014 collapse.