Kenseth's mentality keeps dejection in check
November 15, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- When Matt Kenseth first climbed out of his car, he put forth a brave face despite the circumstances surrounding him. His vehicle had been balky from the very beginning, his race had been one challenge after another and the final result had been a serious blow to his championship hopes. And yet the Joe Gibbs Racing driver gritted his teeth and praised his race team and repeated again and again that he was thankful for the best season of his career.
Whatever crushing disappointment he felt had been suppressed by professionalism. And then he saw JGR Vice President for operations Todd Meredith helping to tear down the No. 20 pit box -- and the look of utter dejection on his face brought it all home.
"That kind of burned in my mind for the week," Kenseth remembered at Homestead-Miami Speedway, site of Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season finale. "I was like, man, that was as disappointing and devastating as a look as you can see on anybody's face, and I felt like I did that, so I felt awful about that."
That's vintage Kenseth -- a driver who apologizes over the radio when it's the car that's at fault, who is as finely attuned to every slight tremor on his race team just as he would be to a vibration inside the car. His teammate's disappointment was understandable, given that the No. 20 squad had arguably its worst run of the season at the worst possible time, and that misstep in Phoenix has flung open the door for Jimmie Johnson to secure a sixth series title this weekend.
And in the process, it potentially derailed what's otherwise been a dream season for Kenseth, who has led the circuit in victories (seven) in his first year with JGR, and had been the class of the series until the past two weeks. Johnson needs only to finish 23rd to win the championship, leaving Kenseth needing a final-race miracle to keep alive hopes of a title that seemed like such a bright possibility just a couple of weekends ago. Barring that unlikelihood, the driver who led the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for six of the first eight weeks will be left to settle for second or third place.
Through it all, though, from Phoenix to this weekend in South Florida, the Kenseth traits shine still through. He heaps much of the responsibility on himself. He doesn't get too down, at least not publicly. And he keeps the bigger pictures -- the scope of both the team and the season -- in mind. They were evident when he exited the car at Phoenix, and again when he sat Thursday in Homestead and listened to Johnson answer numerous questions about winning another crown.
"I don't always do a great job of it, but I always try to think through -- OK, how you act and what you say, how is that going to affect everybody else? Is it a positive, is it a negative, is it going to get everybody down, is it going to get everybody up, is it going to help you finish better next week?" he said. "You stomp your feet or you get mad sometimes, but it is kind of disappointing."
But devastating? He stopped short of that. Even in the midst of last Sunday's race, when the car got worse with every adjustment and he fell as far back as two laps down, Kenseth never thought all was lost. One of those drivers with a keen mechanical mind, he was more focused on making the vehicle better. He knew he was in trouble right after the opening pit stop at Phoenix, when the first batch of changes failed to help. Looking back, he wonders if perhaps he and crew chief Jason Ratcliff should have bitten the bullet on track position and thrown all their efforts at the car, but even then there would have been no guarantees.
"At the end of the day, I really feel like I walked away, and I don't know what I would have done any different," Kenseth said. "I don't know what I could have done any better or any different. I felt like I got everything I could get out of it."
The No. 20 team examined the Phoenix car once back in North Carolina, and Kenseth said there was no single "smoking gun" for his worst outing of the year that didn't include some type of failure. The root of the problem was likely systemic, he added, given that JGR teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch also struggled last weekend, and that the No. 20 program's platform for similarly sized facilities like Phoenix and Richmond hasn't been quite as effective in the second half of the season as it was in the first.
Regardless, the outcome was the same. Gibbs, who won three Super Bowl titles as head coach of the NFL's Washington Redskins before claiming three championships at NASCAR's premier series as a car owner, understands as well as anyone that succeeding at a sport's highest level requires managing a large degree of inevitable disappointment. And in his eyes, Kenseth does that about as well as anyone else, as evidenced by his reactions immediately following last weekend's race.
"I've been in that situation as a coach -- you make the bad call, or it could be just a situation that put you in a bad situation for us that day," Gibbs said. "I think it says a lot about them. I think the feelings went just the opposite, we felt bad Matt was put in that situation. That's part of sports. To keep that from happening is to not be in the sport, because one of the hardest things in life is to handle rough things when it goes against you. Over here it's going to go against you about 80 percent or 90 percent of the time even if you're real, real good, so you have to handle the tough times."
And clearly Kenseth is adept at that, even if he hasn’t had many opportunities to demonstrate it this season. Fresh out of the worst race car he's had all year, he told interviewers again and again at Phoenix how fortunate he was to be with his race team, even if the disappointment of the outcome led him to say it through a clenched jaw. It's been the same this weekend in South Florida, for a driver always able to find the silver lining even if his title hopes now hang by a thread.
"If something doesn't happen Sunday and we don't walk away as the champion, I'm going to be somewhat disappointed," he said. "But on the other hand, it's been an incredible year. Jimmie talked about not being at one (championship contenders) press conference in 10 years or whatever it's been, which is just kind of sickening. I don't think I've been to one since '06. I'm not sure if that's right or not, but I don't think I have been, so it's the first time in seven years I've had a mathematical chance to win the championship still getting to Homestead. No matter how you look at it, it's been a great year."