The Racing Capital
of the World
May 02, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
When NASCAR last competed on a high-speed, high-banked, restrictor-plate superspeedway, Matt Kenseth looked like the driver to beat. In his first race for Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth had the No. 20 Toyota Camry leading the field at the biggest race on the schedule – the Daytona 500.
Kenseth was in front four times for 86 laps in the 200-lap race and looked like a sure bet to be around at the end as he was going for his third Daytona 500 win. But instead of racing for the checkered flag, Kenseth’s engine expired after 149 laps. Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson won the race.
Since that time, Kenseth has won two races and is a major contender for this year’s Sprint Cup Series championship. But he has also had his share of adversity, including last week’s major penalty when NASCAR discovered one of the connecting rods in the Toyota engine was too light after he won at Kansas Speedway. While that controversy continues, Kenseth is focused on a return to Talladega Superspeedway, where he won last fall during the Chase for the Championship. He also had an average finish of second on restrictor plate tracks in 2012, when he was at Roush Fenway Racing.
“That was a pretty gaudy number; I don't think we'll ever be able to do that again,” Kenseth said. “It's the same approach, you show up at the track, you go through to lead laps, put yourself in position to win. Last year, we had really fast cars at the superspeedways and this year at Daytona we did, as well. I think when we had our mechanical problems, we had JGR car first second and third and led some laps there and had ourselves in a good spot.
“So hopefully going back to Talladega, our cars will have some speed in them again, and we'll be able to make it 500 miles and hopefully be up front and be in that mix.”
Kenseth was sailing up the standings after winning at Kansas before NASCAR nailed his team with one of the biggest penalties in history.
NASCAR fined Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief Jason Ratliff $200,000 and suspended him for the next six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship races (a period that also includes the non-points NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race) and placed him on probation until Dec. 31.
Also, car owner Joe Gibbs lost 50 championship car owner points, “the first place finish from April 21 at Kansas Speedway will not earn bonus points toward the accumulated aggregate car owner points total after the completion of the first 26 events of the current season and will not be credited toward the eligibility for a car owner Wild Card position; has had the owner’s license for the No. 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car suspended until the completion of the next six championship points events, therefore being ineligible to receive championship car owner points during that period of time.”
Those penalties are under appeal, and Kenseth doesn’t have much to stay about the issue.
“I commented in the media a little bit at Richmond about it, and I just really don't want to comment about it anymore until we get through the whole appeals process and see what happens there,” Kenseth said. “And then we'll take it as far as we have to in the appeals process and see what they come up with, and whatever the penalty is at the end of the day, we'll have to accept that and move on and talk about it then.”
Rather than talk about his frustration over the penalty, Kenseth decided to take it out on the competition last week at Richmond. He won the pole and led three times for 140 laps before finishing seventh in a race won by Kevin Harvick.
“That was great, going to Richmond,” he said. “It was pretty awesome to sit on a pole. That felt really good, and obviously really you want to win every week. I think we all here at Joe Gibbs Racing, we wanted to try to win that race. Unfortunately, we didn't make that happen. We had a good car most of the night, strong car most of the race, pretty decent at the end, too. Just caught up in that outside with all the varying pit strategies and just got boxed behind the cars and then didn't quite get the finish there that we hoped for, but we did have a good, strong, solid night. Looking forward to going to Talladega.”
Much has changed since Kenseth’s win last fall at Talladega. Not only has he switched teams and manufacturers, but the cars have changed with the advent of the Generation 6 model. That’s why he isn’t sure anything from last year’s win will carry over. But his strong performance in the 2013 Daytona 500 certainly could because it was the first race of the season with the Gen-6.
“I would expect the racing to be similar to Daytona,” Kenseth said. “Now, I dropped out of Daytona in the last 50 laps, but up until that point, but I would expect the racing to be similar because there were no rule changes. The tracks are a little bit different. There's more room at Talladega. I don't think handling will be a huge issue – although it actually kind of was for some cars. I expect it to be the same.
“But I will say that in Daytona, it's not that people don't want to take chances. It's not like you don't want to pass. If everybody could go up there, have a shot at leading, they will go do that. It's just circumstances and the way the car was and the way the draft worked; it just made the racing different. You had to be much more patient than you had to be last year. You had to be much more calculating with your move. And it's kind of like the old days, if you made that move and you didn't have a big enough run to get it done or a car to get help, you could easily get hung out and lose 10, 15 or more spots before you can get back in line. I think it's just a little bit different style of racing.”
Kenseth is hopeful the engine issues the team experienced at Daytona have been solved but plans on running less practice laps Friday and Saturday to help preserve the engine for the race.
“I would expect us to run a very limited amount of laps,” he said. “I don't think that handling is going to be a big deal. I don't think we have a lot of stuff to work through. I think that you have your basic Daytona package, being an impound race, there's not really anything to work out, much to work on on qualifying other than how much taping you put on the grille.”
Counting the penalty from Kansas, Kenseth is 13th in the standings heading to Talladega. But with the performance level he has had this season, he should be one of the leading contenders at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when NASCAR hits the Brickyard on July 28 as well as the Chase for the Championship this fall.
Kenseth is attempting to win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time. He has a pair of second-place finishes in 2003 and 2006. Those are included in his five top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 13 starts at Indianapolis. He was 35th in last year’s race after he was involved in a crash.
A new team and new car has made Kenseth more competitive than ever in 2013.
“One thing I have been not doing is looking back or really comparing anything that I had going on in the past,” Kenseth said of this season. “I've really been working on the present and really trying to look forward. I can tell you that I have a ton of confidence in my race team. These guys are really, really good, and we've had – our performance has been nothing short of spectacular all year.
“Although we don't have all the finishes to show for it, I'm real thankful to have two wins. We had a couple races where everything worked out all right. I feel really good with where we are at today, still obviously trying to move forward, get the cars faster, me do a better job on track, all that stuff.
“I certainly feel good about where we are from a performance standpoint only being here nine races into the year, and you know, hopefully we can keep that moving forward.”
And that all begins with this weekend’s stop at the ultra-treacherous Talladega Superspeedway, where “The Big One” can happen at any moment.
“Well, I used to dread it,” Kenseth said of Talladega. “Last year I was really excited about going there because we were just running so great at the plate races, and I'm excited to go this weekend. We had a great Daytona 500 until we dropped out of the race, but we had a really competitive car. We were leading the race when we broke.
“I feel like we learned a lot, got our cars a lot better and feel like we understood the Gen-6 car and what it likes what it doesn't like and a little bit of drafting, so I'm looking forward to getting there.”