Kenseth keeps cool amid Talladega chaos
October 19, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Matt Kenseth sat down in the media center and immediately began scratching a finger against the top of a microphone placed in front of him, filling the room with abrasive noise. Then he leaned in. "Is this thing on?" he deadpanned, raising his voice a little too loud, so it boomed from the speakers overhead.
The leader in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup cracked a sly grin.
Kenseth has been doing that a lot lately. And not even the potential chaos of Talladega Superspeedway, the most unpredictable track remaining in the playoff, can change it.
No question, the 2.66-mile facility is capable of erasing the hopes of any championship contender, through no fault of their own. The possibility of the "Big One" looms over it, every bit as real as the giant cast iron Vulcan statue that towers over nearby Birmingham. But if you think Kenseth is wringing his hands over some Talladega trouble costing him the four-point edge he holds over Jimmie Johnson -- think again. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has made his peace with this place, and knows fretting over the uncontrollable is about as useless as a race car with three wheels.
"I don't know what good it's going to do me to get freaked out about it right now," said Kenseth, who will start 12th in Sunday's race. "I think they've been working really hard on this car, and I know (Toyota Racing Development) has been working on engines, so hopefully we've got some speed when we get out there …. Just like every week, I think -- you go out and try to do the best job you can do with controlling the things that you can control, and not worry about the things that you can't."
It's not the most popular point of view at a polarizing race track where some drivers are just happy to finish, regardless of where they end up. On many fronts, every trip to the Alabama heartland is preceded by emotions ranging from trepidation to loathing. Kenseth used to feel the same way -- until a few good cars and a few good runs here changed everything. Arguably the best restrictor-plate racer working today, Kenseth hasn’t finished worse than eighth here in his past three outings -- and that eighth-place result came this past spring, when he led 142 laps before finding himself in the wrong lane at the end.
"There were a lot of times when you'd come here and you're like, 'Man, when you do wreck, I hope nobody gets hurt,' so you can get home after the race. Other times you're like, 'Man, I hope we don't wreck.' I went through a lot of that. Just last year and the first race here this year, the speed in my cars was just so fast, so that probably gives you a little different outlook," Kenseth said.
"We've been able to lead a lot of laps. I was fortunate enough to win last fall. Before last year, I haven't really had that opportunity before to feel like we were fast enough, or I could do the right moves or the right things, or whatever. So, that probably changes your outlook a little bit. I think if you go through a few plate races and you have trouble and get caught up in all the wrecks and all that, certainly I'm sure your view changes and you don't look at it quite the same."
When it comes to Talladega, attitude can be everything. It seems no coincidence that the drivers who perform the best on average here are the ones who embrace the place, all its potential risks and rewards included. Five-time winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. certainly feels that way.
"I think you can psych yourself out, and you can definitely anticipate negative results and negative things happening so much that you almost guarantee that as your fate. I think if you think positively, ‘Man, this is going to work, I’m going to make the right choices when things aren't quite working right, I’m going to keep striving and pushing and I’m going to make this a good results, I’m going to get something out of this today,' typically it works out. Typically that attitude is going to prevail over, ‘Man, this isn’t going to work, every time I come here I’m going to wreck, every time I come here I’m going to have trouble, I can’t figure it out why even try.' That attitude never works," he said.
"Here you are at the mercy of the draft and what line you are in. A choice to change lines a couple of laps ago might have you just going backwards with no option to get out -- you are trapped in that box. ... That is kind of frustrating, but you have to stay positive, I think to not end up in that crash or not end up having a terrible result because you make all these terrible choices. You have to stay positive and keep pushing. And try to stay positive. I mean, you will make five bad decisions, but that one right decision you made might be the one that gets you where David Ragan ended up. Just like that, he wins the race. You've just got to keep plugging away."
Ragan was the surprise winner here in May, bursting up the middle lane at just the right time, positive proof of how the aerodynamic whims of Talladega can give every bit as much as they take. No wonder then, Kenseth looks at a track so many other drivers view as an obstacle, and sees an opportunity. In the 10-year history of the playoff, no Chase leader has ever won the fall race at Talladega. No one would be surprised if Kenseth brought that drought to an end.
"I think when you go somewhere and things have been going well, it's easy to feel good about going there and having a good attitude," he said. "And vice-versa, when you go somewhere and you just keep having trouble and get caught in wrecks or what have you, it's easy to come with a bad attitude. I think you just have to come with an open mind, and hope your car is fast and you can stay up front and stay out of trouble. If not, hope circumstance works out and you can get it in the right place and get with the right cars to get up there and get a finish."