Matt Kenseth enters NASCAR’s All-Star weekend as the hottest driver in the Cup Series and a favorite to take home the $1 million prize on Saturday night.
Coming off his third win of the season last weekend at Darlington, Kenseth has been walking on air. His emotional celebration after winning his first Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington has been the talk of the garage. A two-time Daytona 500 winner and NSCS champion, Kenseth wasn’t shy about saying winning at the famed South Carolina track was the biggest in his career.
“I’m actually a really emotional guy. I just don’t usually show it,” said Kenseth at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I was fired up after Darlington. First of all, it’s really fun to win. It’s really hard to win races.
“I’ve never had a start to a season like I have had this year and not just in the wins, but in the laps led and how dominate a car we’ve had and the poles. I mean, it’s just been – gosh, we got done with the Southern 500 it capped quite a week. I had quite the week last week.”
Following their victory at Kansas last month, NASCAR hit Kenseth’s Joe Gibbs Racing team with the hammer. Initial penalties from an illegal connecting rod in their engine included Kenseth losing 50 driver points and crew chief Jason Ratcliff being suspended for six weeks. On appeal all of the penalties were reduced, giving Kenseth back 34 points but still losing Ratcliff for one week – being Darlington, in which he won with interim pit boss Wally Brown.
That gives the 20 team three wins, two poles and bolted them to third in points. A career start for Kenseth, as mentioned, who blows the series away in laps led. After 11 races he’s at 781 and counting, his closest competitor being teammate Kyle Busch at 740. The rest of the competition hasn’t even broken the 500 lap led mark.
The culmination of it all in Darlington was enough to send Kenseth to the emotional side. Coming off a week of penalty reductions, repeatedly fighting for his team’s reputation and looking to add to their already impressive success early in the year. And for Kenseth, it was made sweeter because he’s never come close to winning the event and was hoping to hang on for a solid finish behind Busch, whom he thought had the event won.
“I think just all the circumstances added to the emotion and sometimes it hits you more than others,” he said.
“It’s still, even though I’ve been doing this for a while, it’s just unbelievable that I get to do this for a living and race against Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and all those guys out there and to be able to do that and do it at a competitive level and be able to win races at this level is just really, it’s unbelievable and sometimes it sinks in more than others.
“Most times you’ve just got your head down and you’re thinking about the next week already and how to accomplish the next thing you want to accomplish and maybe don’t enjoy it as much as you should. And other times like last week it just capped off an awesome week and I was just pretty excited that we were standing there.”
The instant success of Kenseth and company in their first season together would have anyone envious. Leaving Roush Fenway Racing after 14 years, 24 wins and the 2003 championship which was the first for Jack Roush, Kenseth seemingly hasn’t missed a beat with a new organization, crew chief and car manufacturer. He’s been to Victory Lane three times alone, RFR only once with driver Carl Edwards.
But Kenseth, who looks for his second career All-Star win before heading into the summer stretch of the season, has faced the same question many times before. And every time he refuses to compare Roush to Gibbs. Choosing to focus on his present and future while being grateful for his past.
“I’m really just looking forward and not backward. There’s a lot of things that are different, so I’m not really focused on anything that happen or didn’t happen in the past,” he said.
“I think since the day I walked at Joe Gibbs Racing I felt really good about everything they had going on there – about the personnel and the whole company, certainly my respective team and Jason, certainly TRD [Toyota Racing Development] and the whole engineering support and their engines and all the stuff that they provide for us. I felt good about everything I saw there and the more I got plugged into that probably the better I felt about it.”