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Struggle at Phoenix puts Kenseth on ropes

November 10, 2013, David Caraviello,

Joe Gibbs Racing driver can't find his footing in the desert, trails Johnson by 28 points

RELATED: Race results | Standings | Championship scenarios | Full Chase coverage

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- This is how bad it got Sunday for Matt Kenseth: As the final circuits wound down at Phoenix International Raceway, the best he could hope for was a free pass back onto the lead lap. And he was struggling to overtake Bobby Labonte and David Gilliland to put himself in position to receive that.

"I can't believe I can't even pass these two cars," Kenseth lamented over the radio.

It was that kind of afternoon, that kind of race for a Joe Gibbs Racing driver who came to the Valley of the Sun in a tight championship battle with Jimmie Johnson, and left needing a miracle next weekend in the season finale. From poor track position to an excruciatingly long pit stop to adjustments that simply didn't work, the No. 20 team suffered through not only its worst performance of this Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, but arguably also its worst of the season that didn't involve a crash or mechanical failure.

The end result was painful for a program that set the bar this season in terms of both race victories and consistency. Kenseth finished 23rd Sunday while Johnson overcame a few early close shaves to place third, and now all the Hendrick Motorsports driver needs is a finish of 23rd or better at Homestead-Miami Speedway to clinch his sixth championship at NASCAR's highest level.

"Of course, I'm disappointed," said Kenseth, now 28 points behind Johnson. "We go there basically without a shot to win. Obviously disappointed, but on the other hand, I couldn't be happier and more proud of my team. It's been the best year of my racing career, really. It's been an awesome season. You're going to have days like this. Of course we wanted to finish off the last couple of weeks. But you can't really just grab one race. There's 10 races (in the Chase) and they all pay the same. We just do the best we can every week."

And yet, Kenseth had done very well in the previous eight Chase events, winning two of them, his only real bobble a 20th-place result at Talladega when he couldn't find enough help to draft his way to the front. Two weeks ago, he and Johnson were tied atop the standings. After the No. 48 team won last Sunday at Texas, Kenseth was still only seven points back.

Phoenix, though, was another story altogether. Kenseth lagged behind Johnson in the first two practice sessions as well as qualifying, and very early in the race it was clear the No. 20 car wasn't its usual self. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff tried different adjustments, but nothing took. The vehicle didn't just fail to respond to the changes, it got worse, forcing Kenseth to sacrifice early track position so his team could attempt still more changes.

No dice. "It's just so bad," Kenseth reported while running 23rd. "We're just going to have to keep pitting out of sequence and see if we can get there. I don't even know what to tell you."

After the race, Ratcliff was at a loss. On a late pit stop, the crew chief said he threw everything from spring rubber to packer to wedge to air pressure adjustments at the car all at the same time, hoping to see some signs of life. "Looking at the lap times, it didn't look like it moved the needle at all, for whatever reason," he said.

"Everybody was fighting the same stuff today, so we should have been able to go out there and do a better job of executing and making our car better," he added. "So for whatever reason, we just really missed it today. It's unfortunate -- we were that close to possibly winning a championship. We've just got to go to Homestead next week and put our best foot forward like we always do."

Ratcliff kept trying to boost his driver's spirits, believing the car's performance might improve if it ever got in clean air. But it never really got the chance to get there, given that either the extra pit stops robbed Kenseth of track position, or his old tires were no match for the rest of the field when he stayed out. He kept moving in the same direction, backward, and his fate was effectively sealed when confusion over whether to take two or four tires led to a stop that was 25 seconds long.

Ratcliff took full responsibility for that glitch, just one of several the No. 20 team faced on an uncharacteristically difficult afternoon in the greater Phoenix area. "Just missed it pretty bad today," the crew chief said. "Missed it all weekend."

This from the team that led NASCAR's premier series with seven race victories, and led the Chase for six of the first nine weeks. Now, Kenseth not only needs a miraculous turn of events to have a shot at the title, but he's also suddenly trying to hold off Kevin Harvick -- who is just six points behind him after Sunday's victory -- for second place.

"We haven't had a day like this all year," Kenseth said. "I can't say I was overly confident about what we had. We had some runs where we were OK in practice and all that. But man, Jason and that group is just awesome. They always put it together, and when we took off, our first run was reasonable today. It wasn't great, but it was about where we were in practice. … Man, once we got off, we got off, and losing track position just compounded all our problems, and we could never overcome them."

Through it all, the 2003 series champion was his usual composed and professional self, even though the sting of Sunday's finish was evident in his tightly clenched jaw. Now all he and his No. 20 team can do is try to win the finale at Homestead -- where Kenseth has won once before, with Roush Fenway Racing in 2007 -- and see what happens.

"You've got to look at this season as a whole," Ratcliff said. "And when you do that, it's been a remarkable season. I think you can ask anybody in this garage -- hey, would you take a bad day like today at Phoenix for the rest of the season? They'd jump all over it. I think we have to look at it that way."

Kenseth certainly does. "I'm a pretty lucky guy," he said. "… It's been a great season. Still got a week to go. Hopefully (we'll) go down there to Homestead and contend for a win."


READ: Harvick rallies
for win at Phoenix

WATCH: Final Laps:
Harvick wins late

WATCH: Kenseth:
‘still one week left’

WATCH: Johnson’s
close call