Sunday night, on Lap 210 of 293, Matt Kenseth did something he probably would have never expected to do in 2020. The 48-year-old from Wisconsin raced his way into the top 10 during a NASCAR Cup Series event at Darlington Raceway.
Kenseth last competed in NASCAR’s top division at the end of the 2018 season. The Real Heroes 400 was his first race back since that November finale. And he finished 10th come checkered flag.
“That was awesome,” said teammate Kurt Busch, who came in third with his No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. “When I got out of the car in the infield, they have an old-school pylon of where the top-10 finishers are with their car number. There’s old Matt Kenseth, No. 42, finishing 10th. That’s what he will do every day, all race tracks. I mean, that’s Matt.”
Chip Ganassi Racing announced back in April that Kenseth would take over the No. 42 Chevrolet entry. Its previous driver, Kyle Larson, was released from the team after using a racial slur on an iRacing stream during the COVID-19 on-track pause.
Kenseth and the No. 42 team had less than a month to be prepared for NASCAR’s comeback. Thankfully for both parties, Kenseth isn’t just any driver. He’s the 2003 champion with 39 victories to his name, including one at the South Carolina track considered “Too Tough to Tame.”
“Here’s the thing about Matt Kenseth: He should have never quit,” said Kevin Harvick, driver of the race-winning No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. “Matt Kenseth was winning races when he retired. … I mean, experience and skill go a long way in our sport. If you have those two things, like Matt does, you’re going to be successful. You don’t just forget how to do that.”
Kenseth wasn’t alone, either. Ryan Newman also made his competitive return after sitting out the last three races while recovering from injuries sustained during his last-lap crash in the season opener. The driver of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford came in 15th at the 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval, recovering from a late-race spin with 39 laps to go that drew the 10th and final caution.
NASCAR granted both Kenseth and Newman postseason waivers, so they are eligible for the 2020 NASCAR Playoffs. In order to make the eventual 16-driver field, they’ll have to either win a race or be among the top points earners without a win. The two have a ways to go, considering Newman is currently ranked 28th and Kenseth sits 34th in the standings. Their next chance to make up ground is Wednesday’s Toyota 500, back at Darlington (6 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“Overall, great to be back in the race car,” Newman said. “Proud of how everybody worked, not just our team but everyone in NASCAR to break the ice on getting the world back in motion.”