Top-10 provides no solace for dominant driver
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The most successful restrictor-plate driver of the last few seasons stood in a drizzle outside his transporter at Talladega Superspeedway and blamed himself.
“I feel like they’re giving me what I need to win. Especially at a plate race with all this stuff going on, I feel like I kind of let everybody down who’s standing here,” Matt Kenseth said as his Joe Gibbs Racing crew loaded up his No. 20 car. “You take off leading at that green-white-checkered, and you come back eighth. That’s always disappointing, even though I don’t know what I would have done different, to be honest with you.”
The driver of the dominant car in Sunday’s rain-interrupted marathon at the 2.66-mile facility, Kenseth led 142 of 192 laps but wound up in the wrong spot during a two-lap dusk shootout that decided the second restrictor-place race of this NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. Out front when the field took the green flag the final time, Kenseth found himself boxed in at the top of the track, and then out of position to try and block the onrushing Front Row Motorsports cars of David Ragan and David Gilliland, who finished an unlikely 1-2.
"Everybody after our great year last year said it’s a strong point. I think it’s a weak point."
-- Matt Kenseth
It added up to a frustrating eighth-place finish for Kenseth, whose restrictor-plate prowess from his days at Roush Fenway Racing has carried over to his new home at JGR. But the results haven’t -- he was the class of the Daytona 500 before being sidelined with a blown engine, and Sunday saw his hopes nixed on the furious final restart of a race that was red-flagged for 3 hours and 36 minutes by weather, and ended with a surprise winner in Victory Lane.
How good was Kenseth on Sunday? He led 142 laps in a race where only one other driver cracked double-digits -- Jimmie Johnson, who paced 16 circuits at the front. Indeed, it was Johnson pushing Kenseth on that final restart, but not even the two of them together could stop Carl Edwards from barreling to the lead at the bottom. Kenseth found himself pushed up the track, and by the time Ragan and Gilliland came storming through the middle, he was too late to try and stop them.
“I just didn’t watch the runs from those guys way in the back. They just got a huge run up the middle. I saw David (Ragan) at the last minute, but he was going too fast. If I pulled in front of him, I would have just gotten wrecked. So I just bit the bullet and tried to find a hole, which there wasn’t one, and just finish best we can,” said Kenseth, who has won twice this season and faces an appeal Wednesday over a 50-point deduction for an engine violation.
“You just don’t know what’s going on in those green-white-checkereds. You don’t know what’s going on seven or eight rows back, and how far they’re holding them back, and how big a run they can get on the pack. It’s just unpredictable, and it’s crazy. I got the best restart that I could. Jimmie really pushed me good, and unfortunately it just wasn’t enough. I couldn’t figure out how to keep it there.”
It was a roller-coaster day for a driver who led huge chunks of the race, but like many others found himself continuously challenged by the changing weather conditions. Kenseth thought he had lost after Johnson left him in the low lane and took a number of followers with him, leaving Kenseth in 12th place at a red flag prompted by heavy rain.
Again, Kenseth put the onus on himself. “I made a wrong move there,” he said. At the time, it seemed as if the mistake would cost him.
“Sorry, man,” Kenseth told crew chief Jason Ratcliff over the radio as the cars were headed to pit road and rain began to pelt the track. Ratcliff kept the faith, telling his driver that it was still early in the day, and there was time for the rain to clear out and resume the race. That’s just what occurred a day earlier, when a rain-delayed NASCAR Nationwide Series race didn’t end until 7:30 p.m. local time.
“We’re still going to get another shot at this thing,” Ratcliff said.
The crew chief’s words proved prophetic, and after a long delay that included some hail in the area, a clearing of the grandstands and plenty of praise for the Air Titan drying system, the field went back to green. Kenseth went right back to the front, leading 33 consecutive laps until diverging pit strategies and accidents jumbled the front of the pack.
Later, Kenseth found himself on the opposite end of the weather situation -- in the lead as skies darkened and the final laps wound down, and rooting hard for NASCAR to call the race. “They’re going to have to pull the plug,” Kenseth said over the radio during the final caution. “It’s going to be another five or six laps, and I can’t see a thing.” Turns out they were missives from a driver lobbying for a little help to stay in the lead.
“Obviously, I was out there talking about it because I was the leader, but it was fine,” Kenseth said. “Was it dark? Yeah, it was pretty dark. We could all see enough to do our jobs.”
Kenseth was a force on restrictor-plate tracks during his days at Roush, winning the Daytona 500 twice and finishing in the top three in all four plate races last season. After moving to Gibbs he picked up right where he left off, posting some of the fastest speeds in Daytona testing and pacing 86 of the 149 laps he competed in before his engine expired in the 500. Sunday was more of the same, his No. 20 uncatchable until weather, cautions and circumstances intervened.
Standing in the drizzle Sunday evening, all that was of little solace to a driver who only knew he had the best car in the event, and didn’t win.
“Restrictor-plate racing is tough,” Kenseth said. “Everybody after our great year last year said it’s a strong point. I think it’s a weak point. I feel like I’m not very good at (choosing) the right spots. … It would be nice if we could race a little bit to the end, because I feel like our cars are good enough and our strategy is good and we can get ourselves in really good places for longer runs. But green-white-checkereds are just really unpredictable.”
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