Matt Kenseth’s win at Phoenix on Sunday means another former Cup Series champion gets to leave NASCAR’s top level with a win in his final season.
Kenseth, however, wasn’t so sure that was going to happen. Especially when Chase Elliott got past him for the lead on lap 284. Kenseth said his car was inexplicably loose after the restart that led to Elliott’s pass and he wondered if his last best chance to win in the Cup Series was disappearing through his windshield.
“Honestly when he cleared me, I had that feeling of dread, and I’m like, I can’t believe I’m going to let another one of these get away,” Kenseth said. “We’ve just had so many close ones get away at the end of these races for a multitude of reasons.
“You know, so at that moment, no, but he got in front of me, and it tightened my car up and I was really able to get off Turn 2 really well, and I saw him slip the first time, and I was like, he might start coming back, and then he slipped the second time, and I felt a little better about it, and then the third slip he had was a big one, I gained about three car lengths, and I kind of started honestly got the tingles from head to toe, and I knew it was on and we were going to have a race.”
Kenseth knows that feeling of dread well at Phoenix. A year ago he was on his way to a spot in the final four at Homestead via a win at the track. But as Kenseth was nearing the white flag, Michael McDowell spun to cause a caution.
On the next restart, Kenseth’s car was wrecked. His title hopes were done.
“Ever since then, just it never feels like it’s meant to be, and today was definitely meant to be,” Kenseth said.
It’s hard to blame Kenseth for feeling like it’s never meant to be in 2017. With his contract up at the end of the season, Joe Gibbs Racing decided to go in a younger (and cheaper) direction for the driver of Kenseth’s No. 20 car. Other teams have followed suit with younger, lesser known, drivers in their cars for next season.
With his future up in the air for most of the season, Kenseth has been competitive. He made the playoffs despite not getting to victory lane in the first 26 races of the season. But he wasn’t in the playoffs very long.
Kenseth was eliminated from the second round of the playoffs in bizarre fashion. After his car sustained damage in a mid-race wreck, he drove to pit road for his team to fix it. But eight of his pit crew members — one more than the maximum allowed over the wall — scrambled to pit his car. He was disqualified.
The 2003 Cup Series champion revealed a week before Phoenix that he’s probably done as a NASCAR driver after next week’s race at Homestead as a result. At 45, Kenseth has the right to be picky if he wants to continue driving. And that right choice never came along, he said.
“Throughout my career and my life really, kind of there’s certain things that you know is right and things line up and it’s just kind of easy, and then there’s things that you can fight, and at the end of the day, it just wasn’t the right thing,” Kenseth said. “If anything it just reaffirms my decision to step away next year, honestly. Like I said, there’s not a lot of people that get to go out like this. It was a special, special day and I’m looking forward to next week and hopefully trying to race them again one more time.”
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