James: For Matt Kenseth, figuring out plate racing ‘not my job’ – Firstcoastnews.com

6 months ago Comments Off on James: For Matt Kenseth, figuring out plate racing ‘not my job’ – Firstcoastnews.com


TALLADEGA, Ala. — Matt Kenseth was incredulous, or wryly feigning it. Calling in as a guest on National Public Radio’s “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me” show two weeks ago, the 2003 Sprint Cup champion took fake umbrage with host Peter Sagal’s suggestion that he had “won the Daytona 500 in 2009 because it was cut short by rain.”

Wittiness ensued.

On whether drivers are physically elite athletes: “No, that’s a lie.”

On participating in the “Not My Job” segment where the winning contestant would receive a voice mail from former host Carl Kasell: “So do you guys want me to get this last one wrong so you don’t actually have to call that guy’s voicemail?”

The panelists, performing live from a theater in Milwaukee, sparred playfully with the Wisconsinite, conceded their lack NASCAR knowledge, but maybe were a little closer to a fundamental truth of restrictor plate racing than they knew. Kenseth’s first of two Daytona 500 wins hadn’t occurred just because it rained, but sweeping past Elliott Sadler to lead his only seven laps before a deluge was a crucial detail.

Explaining the intricacies of NASCAR’s oddest form of racing? Not his job.


Aside from Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s active leader in restrictor plate wins with 10, a driver who seemingly divines philosophy in gliding through tubes of air around mammoth banks of asphalt, most drivers seem to acknowledge the randomness in all of it. Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway figures to be no different.

So despite winning the Daytona 500 twice and leading on the final lap this February and conquering Talladega in the fall of 2012, Kenseth can’t assume this week will be his next best chance to stabilize a season of uneven performance. But he also won’t lament a move, that move, a decision to attempt to block eventual winner Denny Hamlin on the final turn of the Daytona 500 this season. Kenseth lost momentum ceding the low, preferred line as Hamlin pivoted low, and won a broadside duel with Martin Truex Jr. to the finish. Kenseth saved his No. 20 Toyota as it wobbled in the corner and finished 14th after leading 40 laps.


Hamlin, Kenseth’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, entered the next 25 races of the regular season with a virtually-assured Chase for the Sprint Cup slot. Kenseth hasn’t finished better than seventh — twice — and is currently 15th in points.

“That was one lap in one race and certainly didn’t impact the whole season,” Kenseth countered. “If you go back and do it all again and knew you were going to finish 15th or 14th you’d probably stay in line and finish second, but I really believed at the time, and I still believe, that if we stayed in line, we were going to get passed.

“I had to at least try. If you didn’t try and stayed on the bottom and still got beat, and finished second, you had to come back and look at everybody and be like, “Yeah, I just stayed in line and saw a faster car coming. It was going to go by me on the outside but I just stayed in line and lost the 500.” So at least I lost trying.”


Kenseth feels his team is more competitive than at this point last season — he was seventh in the standings after nine races in 2015, however, 35 points closer to the top spot — but doesn’t see Talladega as a possible breakthrough point because of the sometimes random nature of restrictor-plate racing. Several drivers can expect to be competitive, he said, with fast cars, but after that, no guarantees.

“It’s one of the races that so much is out of your control, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Last year we had a terrible finishes in both these races,” said Kenseth, who finished 25th and 26th at Talladega last fall. “You just never know. When things work out its fun. But more times than not, when you come here, they don’t work out.”

Ask points leader Carl Edwards. The 2011 series runner-up, a perennial Chase-qualifier and a 27-time winner at NASCAR’s highest level, the JGR driver is among a group of highly successful Cup actives who have not won a plate race. He’s joined by the likes of 2004 series champion and 27-race-winner Kurt Busch.

“I feel like I know how to run these races, but I just haven’t been able to get the victory out of it,” Edwards said.


Earnhardt Jr. credits multiple factors for his proclivity on plate tracks, among them studying his late father and namesake -— who won 11 races at Daytona and Talladega — and teams that emphasized the regimen.

“But the cars,” he said, “are everything. “If the car can’t complete the passes that my mind mentally wants it to make, then I won’t be as offensive and as confident in making those moves.

“I’ll make those moves less often and put myself in the least likely position to succeed. If I would go out there and drive the car and it’s just not doing what I think I need it to do, then your confidence goes down and you certainly aren’t the big dog out there and someone else sort of rises to the occasion throughout the day and throughout the event as the dominant car, the dominant driver, the guy with the best stuff; and he’s the one that tends to control the race.”


Edwards said winning the two races preceding Talladega will allow him to co-opt Earnhardt Jr.’s strategy. He should have the car, as he finished fifth in the Daytona 500, with teammates first (Hamlin, who led 95 laps), third (Kyle Busch, 19) and 14th (Kenseth).

“I think the thing that separates the guys that win from my perspective and what I’ve seen is those guys that are really aggressive and they stay out there, they block and they work the traffic,” he said.

A sound theory from a major restrictor plate-winner and a winless disciple.

Will it work? Don’t ask Kenseth. That’s not his job.

Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

PHOTOS: Behind the wheel with Matt Kenseth



James: For Matt Kenseth, figuring out plate racing ‘not my job’ – Firstcoastnews.com

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