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Kenseth never comfortable, not even after career year

February 05, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Last year's runner-up in the Chase looks to be even better in 2014

When Matt Kenseth won a race at the organization he used to drive for, the giddiness in the shop could linger for a few weeks. When he won his first race last spring for Joe Gibbs Racing, all of his new teammates and crewmen seemed equally as excited -- for a few hours.

"You walk through the shop, and everybody's shaking your hand and all happy and everything. You go up into your meetings and it's Monday afternoon, and it feels like a normal week," Kenseth recalled. "It wasn't like that before. Before, it felt like everyone was on a high for three or four weeks. Now, it was like a half a day. Yeah, they're still happy and everything, but OK, we expected one of our cars to win that race. Now let's figure out how to get better, and how we're going to go to this next track, and how we're going to win next week. It's a little bit different feel than what I was used to."

And that's just fine with Kenseth, who has never really been one to regale in his successes for very long. Certainly, not after a single race victory like his maiden one with JGR at Las Vegas. And not even after a career year, one in which he notched a career-best and series-leading seven race wins, led JGR to its highest victory total ever, and fell 19 points shy of his second championship at NASCAR's top level. The laconic Wisconsin native is as apt to grow content with his accomplishments as he is to root for the Chicago Bears.

All drivers who succeed in the Sprint Cup Series work very hard, and they all understand the need to progress season over season in a sport that never stays the same for very long. Kenseth, though, takes that to another level. No question, the results of last year indicate that JGR fit him as easily as a broken-in leather jacket, that the teammates he worked with and the cars he drove matched his needs on and off the race track. But if you expect Kenseth to be somehow changed by that experience, think again. Last year's championship runner-up is almost most comfortable when he's a little uncomfortable -- as he is right now waiting to get back behind the wheel.

"Matt, it's interesting. I want to make sure this comes across the right way -- he's a pessimist. But he's driven by that, you know?" said crew chief Jason Ratcliff. "The thing is, I think we're all pessimists, we're just all not willing to admit it. So we like to be optimistic about things that we're skeptical of. He's just really open to saying, 'Hey, I think this could happen, this could happen, this could be bad, and this could be bad.' That challenges him and pushes him forward, which is rare. But it's taught me to do things a little bit differently, because by nature I'm not that way."

Kenseth has said there were times during his final years at Roush Fenway Racing -- when his cars were good enough to win races, but could not seriously contend for the title -- when he wondered if he'd ever have another opportunity to win a championship. His confidence level reached an all-time high, he added, not after this past season but before it, when he realized how well he fit with the pieces at Gibbs and what they might be capable of together. All that was realized in the best year Kenseth has had since 2006, when he won four races and finished second in final points.

Now? Kenseth will admit, there may be times late at night when he allows himself the barest sliver of satisfaction, knowing that he's been able to succeed not just with one race team, but with two. "It wasn't just that I was fortunate to be in that spot, and I wouldn’t be able to do it anywhere else," he said. After his first full season at Gibbs, he better knows the people around him, his over-the-wall crew, what Ratcliff is capable of. JGR is home now, and any newness is long gone. All that should theoretically translate into the possibility for improved results over last year.

But Kenseth isn't assuming it. Not in the least. There's always that little nugget of discomfort in there, driving him forward, reminding him that nothing ever stays good enough.

"There's not a lot of us who get to do it every week, and it's a small, select group that get to do it with teams and cars that can legitimately be a contender to win on a regular basis and run for a championship. I think you have to, at least I do, really work hard at all the time to try to stay competitive, to try to stay at a level where you can hopefully contend for wins and hopefully contend for championships," he said.

"So I guess for me, no matter how good we've done or not done, I've never really been 100 percent comfortable. Honestly, I'm no more comfortable sitting here today than I was sitting here last year, as far as (the) future or whatever. A lot of people may think that's silly, but that's just the way I've always been. I think it's really easy to get replaced. It's a really competitive sport. You’ve got to work as hard as you can all the time to perform at a top level. Some people might not have to, and I kind of envy those people. But I do."

Perhaps understandable, given that Kenseth once worked four years selling parts in a chassis shop during his short-track days, watched his career nearly fizzle out numerous times due to a lack of funding, and ultimately split with Roush so his old team could put two-time Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in his former No. 17 car. Guys like that understand doing whatever it takes to maintain a good thing, especially at 41 years old. Which is why every week Kenseth is back at it, scrutinizing notes and watching video, studying other drivers to look for strengths and weaknesses, taking absolutely nothing for granted.

That little nugget of discomfort is still there. It always is. Even after the best season of his career.

"Success is great while you're having it. But what we did last year has just about zero impact on this year. Something works different for everybody -- some people, they get on a roll, and maybe they get more confident or maybe even arrogant. Some of that works for them. That doesn’t work for me," he said.

"I always feel like after that weekend's over, I get until Wednesday-ish at the latest before I get that same feeling back in my gut again, where I'm like, 'Oh man, I've got to get to the race track, got to figure out how to conquer this track, figure out how to beat that guy.' … I kind of get in that mode, and I've probably been in that mode since the week after Christmas already. So I'm anxious to get on the track and see how to stack up against everyone, see how we're going to make these new rules work, the new aero stuff and the new qualifying format, seeing how we can make all that work and be more competitive than we were last year."

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