Coming into 2018, DJ Kennington knew it was going to be a busy racing season. Slated to run at least 10 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, the veteran also has a full-time Pinty’s Series ride in Canada.
Kennington kicked off the season by qualifying for his second Daytona 500. The No. 96 car started 30th and finished a respectable 24th. His next race wasn’t until ISM Raceway where he finished 31st.
Kennington earned a pair of top-30 finishes at Martinsville Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway, then posted a career-high 20th in his most recent outing at Talladega Superspeedway. Through the opening 12 races of the season, Kennington and Gaunt Brothers Racing have competed in five of them, a total that equals the driver’s career MENCS starts entering this season.
There are more races on the horizon for Kennington, too. Although Parker Kligerman will be piloting the No. 96 during the Coca-Cola 600, the Canadian will return to the Gaunt Brothers Toyota later in the season. For now, the focus shifts to the Pinty’s Series, where Kennington is a two-time champion north of the border. His first race in that division will be on Sunday, May 20 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.
Kennington chatted with Frontstretch to discuss his increased role in the Cup Series, preparing for the Pinty’s schedule, as well as why it took so long to get an opportunity at the Cup level.
Dustin Albino, Fronstretch: How excited are you for the Pinty’s Series season to begin?
Kennington: I’m really excited because that’s my bread and butter. That’s home turf for us as a two-time champion, and we’ve got to get back to winning races. It’s been a struggle over the last couple of years, but I’m excited to get going. I’m really looking forward to hopefully putting this car up front.
— DJ Kennington (@DJKRacing) May 10, 2018
Albino: You’ve run full-time in that series since 2007. Why was that series the right fit for you?
Kennington: It’s home, it’s in Canada. It’s basically NASCAR in Canada and that’s as high as you can go in motorsports in Canada.
Albino: What are your goals for the Pinty’s Series in 2018?
Kennington: You always say you want to win races, but we should be on top of our game and be better than what we’ve been running. Our sponsors and everyone deserve it, so I think we can definitely get it done. Anything short of a championship will be a disappointment.
Albino: This year, you’ve competed in five Cup races with Gaunt Brothers Racing. How would you assess those races thus far?
Kennington: We’ve had our ups and downs. They are a small team and Marty Gaunt [team owner] has worked his butt off. Mark Hillman, the crew chief, has done a great job. They are doing a lot with a little. It’s a small budget team and we’re trying to get more sponsorship and support.
For what we’ve done, we have an average finishing position of 24.5 in the five races. Take that in the grand scheme of things and 24th in the Cup Series race is pretty good for a small team.
Albino: These races are a little longer than you normally run in the Pinty’s Series. Has your body adjusted to running 500-mile or 500-lap races yet?
Kennington: 500 laps is a long time but NASCAR has done such a good job with safety in these cars. I’ve been really comfortable in there and I’ve had a whole lot of fun. I really look forward to the next one.
Albino: How do the Cup cars compare to some of the other series you’ve been a part of?
Kennington: They are quite a bit different from anything, really, even from the XFINITY cars that I drove in 2008 and 2009. Everything has evolved and changed so much, especially with the new platform with the cars sitting right on the ground. They are kind of a breed of their own, as far as I’m concerned… fun to drive but tough to drive, especially with the rear spoiler and not a lot of downforce. They are a handful, and I enjoy it a lot. It’s a big challenge and you know it’s an uphill battle when you’re the one of the small teams competing against the juggernauts of the sport.
It’s all the more fun when you’re trying to compete against those guys.
Albino: Being that you’re on a single-car team and you don’t have much experience at the Cup level, who do you lean on for advice?
Kennington: Not a lot of people. I’ve known Brad Keselowski for years, growing up through the XFINITY Series we both ran cars together. I kind of got to know Brad then, and he answers any questions that I have as far as drivability and things like that. It’s one of those things that I’m 39 years old, you should know how to drive a racecar, but every time you get into one of those things you’re learning. I’m just doing the best as I can, learning as we go and Marty has given me a great opportunity to do it.
Albino: Before competing at the Cup level, did you know any of the drivers?
Kennington: No, absolutely not. I raced Kyle Busch on some short track stuff. He came up here and raced at my home track. I know a few of them from running the XFINITY Series when I ran there in 2009. I ran some K&N races against Darrell Wallace Jr. The racing community is a small community, so you kind of know everybody, but you don’t.
I really haven’t been too close with many of them. Obviously, I grew up with Cole Pearn [crew chief of Martin Truex Jr.] Cole has been really great for me whenever I need advice. He gives me what he can, but obviously, he can’t give me a lot. He points me in the right direction which certainly helps.
Albino: You’re coming off a career-best 20th at Talladega two weekends ago. Was it just a matter of missing the crashes that allowed you to compete for your best finish?
Kennington: Absolutely; that’s what it is on the speedway stuff. We were consistently fast, which was good for a change. Qualified decent and picked up a lot from Daytona as far as qualifying time on our own, so I know the car is faster. We just really need some help in the draft because if I don’t have anyone behind me, we can’t go anywhere. We were up to 13th with 12 laps to go and I had no one to work with, got shuffled back and finished 20th. But that’s still a great finish for such a small team in the Cup Series. They work really hard at the speedway stuff, so I’m pretty proud of that.
Albino: Prior to this year, you had just competed on the plate tracks and Phoenix. How challenging has it been adapting to Martinsville and Bristol?
Kennington: We tried to pick tracks that we thought we could be competitive at. Martinsville to me is a true short track. We ran very well there once we got some laps in the car. We were a top-15 car on the speed charts for the last 100 laps of the race. For a small team, that’s great.
At Bristol, we missed it and struggled. We’re methodically learning how to compete on different tracks, and that’s what we’ve done so far. Hopefully, there are a few more coming, but plate tracks seem to be an equalizer. If you can get in the draft, you can do really well there. If you miss some wrecks, next thing you know you have a good finish. I’ve got some speedway experience in the XFINITY and Truck Series, and I just love the speedway stuff. For some reason I enjoy it, and every time I’m out there I get better at it.
Albino: Why transition to the Cup Series so late in your career?
Kennington: I just got the opportunity. I’ve never had the opportunity before and I knew Jay Robinson [owner of Premium Motorsports] back from the XFINITY deal in 2008 and 2009 and I became friends with him there. The opportunity came up for Phoenix, and I drove his truck for him a couple races before that and he liked what we did and asked if I would be interested in running at Phoenix. I had some sponsorship, he gave me the opportunity and we went there and had a really good day for our first outing.
I’ve known Marty my whole life. I raced against his brother in Canada. I’ve known him for years, and the opportunity came up that he was going to start running some Cup races. With him being Canadian and myself being Canadian and having Cup experience it worked and just went from there.
Albino: Why do you think Gaunt Brothers Racing wanted to start a team up at the top in the Cup Series?
Kennington: He’s done a lot with that company. He sold his engine business and was just looking for his next venture and he’s been a team owner before. He was very interested in going to the Cup side, especially considering that there are just 40 teams, really. You don’t have to worry about trying to qualify every race and he thinks that’s our best opportunity to get better with what we’re doing. It’s just an opportunity and he always wanted to do it. He’s a businessman and very smart with his money. Hopefully, we can find some partners and he can continue on.
Albino: What’s it about the Cup Series that attracts you to it after spending so much time in the Pinty’s division?
Kennington: It’s a lifelong dream of mine. I think it’s a lifelong dream of any stock car driver because Cup is the top level there is. I think you always question your abilities. You compare yourself to other racers, and it’s always a measuring contest when you’re racing. I get the opportunity to run in the Cup Series from the small town of St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada. If you would have told me that when I was five years old racing go-karts behind the pig barn that I would be racing in the Daytona 500 in a Cup car, I would have thought you were crazy.
To get that opportunity and to have the sponsors who have made this happen for me, it’s an opportunity you can’t turn down. I’m not a young guy anymore, but Kevin Harvick is proving the point right now you don’t have to be young to win races.
Albino: Do you have any aspirations of going full-time Cup racing in the future?
Kennington: I’ve got a family now with two kids and a beautiful wife, and I have two full-time teams in the Pinty’s Series. I have two corporate sponsors, so life is pretty good for me in Canada. I’m very proud of the Pinty’s Series. Of course, I would love to run Cup full-time, but this late in the game I’m not sure that’s what I would want to do. But if an opportunity did come along, it’s hard to say no when you’re a racer.
Albino: What’s your Cup schedule like moving forward in 2018?
Kennington: Not 100 percent sure, yet. We are trying to get the program more versatile, so they are going to run the Coca-Cola 600. I do have Daytona locked up, so it looks like we will be at Daytona for sure, and hopefully a couple more races as well. The plan was to run 10 for the season, and we just have to see how sponsorship and everything comes together.
Mike Neff contributed to this article.