As the pressure of NASCAR's Chase mounts at Phoenix, Matt Kenseth will be happy to prove that the championship can be won without actually winning a race.
PHOENIX—Peace and quiet are ordinarily scarce for Matt Kenseth on race day. Never mind that his noble pursuit is regularly compromised by the myriad demands that NASCAR places on its racers. Where an athlete in another big league sport might seize the opportunity to beat a hasty retreat into his own space before taking his chosen field of play, the Wisconsin-born Kenseth can’t hide his cheesehead under oversized headphones all day. There are too many fans who want selfies, too many sponsors who need greeting—and they crowd him en masse from the garage to the race grid. “It's definitely different,” he says. “You’re not down in the locker room with guys and your coach or whatever and then running out of a tunnel to go play a game.”
Kenseth can’t even count on a few ticks of me-time before he arrives at the track, not when his wife, Katie, descends up on him with their three boisterous young daughters who don’t yet know the meaning of the word serenity and aren’t in much hurry to learn. When tranquil moments like the one Kenseth enjoyed last Sunday morning before the big Sprint Cup race in Fort Worth sneak up on him, they can leave him as perplexed as ol' Jed Clampett staring at a fountain of crude gushing from the ground. “When Katie and my girls aren’t here,” he says, “there’s a lot more boredom.”
Boredom is not something Kenseth needs to worry about after he fires the engine of his No. 20 Toyota and settles into a three-hour marathon of din and clamor, especially not this year. Even after the checkered flag flies, the commotion has often continued as the pressure of NASCAR's newly formatted Chase for the Cup takes its toll on frayed nerves and causes tempers to erupt.
Kenseth has certainly made his share of noise this season, his 17th at the Sprint Cup level and second with Joe Gibbs Racing. After achieving a berth in the Chase on the strength of 10 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes, he is still very much in the title picture going into the penultimate race of the NASCAR season this Sunday at Phoenix (3 p.m. EST; ESPN). When the dust settles only four of the eight remaining drivers in the Chase will retain a chance to race for the series championship at Homestead-Miami, where the highest finisher among them takes all. And if Kenseth, who’s currently locked in a fifth-place tie in the standings with Carl Edwards and just a point behind fourth-place Chaser Jeff Gordon, were to join that final four and somehow emerge as the best of them all?
Well, that might just cause NASCAR to blow a fuse.
Kenseth, you see, hasn’t won a race all season. Neither has Greg Biffle or Ryan Newman, both of whom also made the Chase on points. But while Biffle didn’t make it past the first round, Kenseth and Newman—who’s in second place, 10 points ahead of Kenseth—are still very much in the game. That they’ve managed to do this without scoring the only result that guarantees safe passage into the next round, a victory, is extraordinary.
The checkered flag, however hard Kenseth has been driving for it, has simply eluded him all year. He's placed third three times (at the first Charlotte and Dover races, and again at Bristol), came in second twice (Atlanta and Talladega) and started on the pole twice as well—most recently last week in Fort Worth. He went on to lead that race for the first 53 laps.
But as the race wore on, Kenseth and his team struggled to recapture the blazing speed his Toyota displayed at the beginning of the race. An 18-second pit stop toward the end of the race, which dropped Kenseth from fourth to 18th, didn’t help. “There were cars that I lapped twice during the day that I couldn't even come close to running with,” says Kenseth, who finished 25th. “Honestly, I don't really know what happened. We just got back there in traffic, and it was basically undriveable. We just couldn't go anywhere.”
This oh-fer streak is quite a turnabout for a driver who was such a frequent visitor to Victory Lane just a season ago. After emigrating to Gibbs from Roush Fenway Racing, Kenseth quickly emerged as the best free agent pickup of 2013, winning a Cup-leading seven races on the way to finishing 19 points behind Jimmie Johnson for the series championship. “It’s a funny sport,” Kenseth says. “Last year we ran well before the Chase, and in the Chase. I felt like we had a great chance of winning a championship and, unfortunately, we just didn’t run quite well enough and got beat. This year has been kind of the opposite. But with this new format, we’ve been able to hang in there.”
And it’s a format that could backfire quite badly on NASCAR. Never in the sport’s 65-season history has a driver won a Cup championship without winning a race. What’s more, even champions with only one victory are barely welcome. When Kenseth became the fourth in 2003, NASCAR stopped awarding its highest crown to the highest points finisher over the course of a season and started making the 10 or so best drivers really earn it over the final 10 weeks of the season. Kenseth’s consistency over the course of the ’03 season—his average finish of 10.2 was a notch higher than 11.0 Gordon posted when he claimed the series championship in ’01 after winning a Cup-best six races that year—became a cautionary tale.
Now winning is the only thing for title contenders. The pressure to land on the top step on the podium each week has caused drivers’ frustrations to boil over in ways that are more routine and more public than ever before.
Not even the mild-mannered Kenseth has been able to stay above the fray. Four weeks ago at Charlotte he jumped Brad Keselowski in a dark alley between two team haulers as ESPN cameras were rolling. The split-second tussle, for which Keselowski was fined $50,000 while Kenseth’s wallet went unmolested, was the last clash in a nightlong battle between the drivers.
It may well have begun when Kenseth hit Keselowski during a caution lap and was further enflamed when Keselowski hit Kenseth back after the race while he was parked and unharnessing himself on pit road. “[When] he pulled all that stuff after the race was over, destroying other people's cars, using his car as a weapon—doing all that stuff is just totally unacceptable and not the kind of behavior you would expect from somebody with the experience level and somebody who's the caliber that Brad is,” Kenseth says. “I think that would’ve put me over the edge no matter when that happened.”
Two weeks ago at Martinsville, it was Kevin Harvick who was sent over the edge. As he was racing outside of Kenseth for sixth place early on, Kenseth’s car suffered a brake-induced wobble that sent Harvick’s Chevy twirling into the wall. While Kenseth was able to continue racing with minor dents and scratches to his vehicle and placed a respectable sixth, Harvick was beset by significant body blows and finished 33rd—a result that incensed him enough to essentially put a hit out on Kenseth’s title hopes. “He won’t win this championship,” Harvick said after the race. “If we don’t, he won’t.”
While Kenseth will take responsibility for the accident—“That was just a mistake I made, and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says—the Gibbs pilot will not be intimidated. “My hope is that we don't go down that road,” Kenseth says about the possibility of Harvick following through on his threat. “But you’re not gonna be ... you can only let so much happen. You’re not gonna be somebody's whipping boy for too long. Hopefully we can get past it and continue to be friends and continue to race each other with the respect that we've shown each other for the last eight or 10 years.”
And then, of course, last week in Texas, Gordon and Keselowski were the center of a pit-box clearing brawl that sucked at least four different crew teams—two of which were later fined and placed on probation. (The drivers were not penalized.) This time when the fists flew, however, Kenseth was back in the garage area watching the melee unfold on TV. “I just sat there trying to figure out what happened,” he says. “I still haven't really rewatched the whole thing. It looked pretty out of control.”
Still, Kenseth could find himself feeling jumpy again at Phoenix. Although he has shown he can be fast here, winning by more than a second in 2002 and landing on the pole nine years later, he was anything but last year. His car handled poorly from the start, and a muffed pit stop put him two laps down from the leaders. After bringing his Toyota home in a playoff-low 23rd place, Kenseth watched his seven-point deficit on Chase leader Johnson balloon to 28 points. A second-place showing at Homestead-Miami the following week wasn’t nearly enough to make up the lost ground.
“Phoenix was tough last year for sure,” he says. But if I want to be fair, you can go through all 10 of those Chase races and pick out things that cost us a title. Certainly this year with the elimination aspect, now that there's only four cars that go to Homestead, one guy's gonna be happy and another three are gonna be like, What could we have done different here, what could we have done different there to have a different result..?”
Kenseth is trying hard not to be that guy again this year. He’d love nothing more than to have something to race for again next week at Homestead and prove that last year was no fluke. If he were to win a race in the bargain, great. If not? So much the better. There’s something satisfying about the prospect of Kenseth prevailing while sticking to his current course. It could prove that winning—despite NASCAR’s belief—isn’t the end-all, and that all it takes is one man to point a new way forward.