Matt Kenseth, realist, doesn’t sugarcoat the prognosis for overtaking five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson on Sunday to lay a second claim to NASCAR’s most prized trophy.
Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, is painfully aware that Johnson needs only to finish 23rd in the Ford EcoBoost 400 season finale at 3 p.m. Sunday to lock up his sixth championship in the past eight seasons.
“I think Jimmie could run through the grass or with three wheels on” and still finish well enough to render irrelevant how long-shot contenders Kenseth and Kevin Harvick fare at the end of 400 miles.
“He’s going to have to have a mechanical problem or crash to make something happen,” Kenseth said matter-of-factly, which is pretty much how he says everything.
But Kenseth, a 41-year-old Wisconsin veteran climaxing the most successful season in an extraordinary but understated career, also recognizes that there’s work still to be done.
The numerics: Johnson leads Kenseth by 28 points and Harvick, winner at Phoenix last week, by 34. Each race rewards the winner 43 points, the runner-up 42, etc., with bonuses of three points to the winner, one point for leading a lap and one for leading the most laps.
Kenseth arrived with a mission: Control what he can control to assure a successful conclusion to his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing after 13 full campaigns and 24 victories driving for Jack Roush. That 2003 title notwithstanding, a 2013 series-best and personal career-best seven victories have made this season as gratifying as any.
First and foremost, he said, “Kevin is pretty close to us in points, and we want to finish ahead of him to [protect] second and be ahead of him in case the 48 does have a problem.”
Step One favored him. Kenseth zipped through a 177.667 mph qualifying lap of Homestead’s banked 1.5 mile oval Friday to position his No. 20 Dollar General Toyota on pole for the start of the race.
Kenseth initially will have Johnson and Harvick rather prominent in his rearview mirror. Johnson qualified sixth and Harvick seventh. Kenseth will be intent on outgunning front-row rival Kurt Busch to lead the first lap and as many as he can thereafter. He needs every bonus point he can get.
But the pole also uplifted a JGR team that needed a boost to spirits after a Phoenix performance that spoiled what shaped up as a down-to-the-last-lap championship duel with Johnson. Kenseth finished 23rd, Johnson third. Kenseth’s car handled diabolically from start to finish, and nothing he or crew chief Jason Ratcliff did improved it.
The most impressive thing Kenseth did all day, other than finish without hitting the wall, was to climb from the car and demonstrate characteristic composure and perspective.
That’s not uncommon. Kenseth controls his emotions as well as he controls his race car in 175-mph traffic. But this was over the top.
He swigged a Gatorade and quickly shifted the dialogue from the crushing blow to his championship hopes to how proud he was of “a special group of guys” and what an “amazing, incredible season” the No. 20 bunch has had.
His crew chief took note. Ratcliff said, “I know Matt’s in the car just ready to chew the steering wheel off. I know he’s frustrated.” But Kenseth kept that inside and Ratcliff said he found that inspiring.
So did Gibbs, the three-time Super Bowl championship coach who enticed Kenseth into his NASCAR operation this year on the basis of talent but not without a nod to his maturity and the example he sets.
That isn’t uniform in a three-driver JGR lineup that includes brilliant Kyle Busch, who can be temperamental, and Denny Hamlin, who can be bluntly outspoken.
“What you find with quarterbacks or drivers, they all have different temperaments,” Gibbs said. “Some are low-keyed; some are revved up.” Kenseth warrants a peak rating among the low-keyed.
Gibbs stood off to the side while Kenseth was giving his postrace postmortems to a TV reporter. “Matt was biting his tongue the whole time,” he said, “but he handles tough things the right way.
“My wife called me afterwards, and she was almost in tears. She said the way he handled all that was unbelievable.”
Kenseth’s reaction spoke volumes about what has made him a popular figure if not a dynamic one over the years. “If throwing a fit isn’t going to help anything, why do it?” he said with a shrug. “You’re trying to make it better, not worse.”
In that same vein, Kenseth addressed his move from Roush to Gibbs. It was not a rancorous split. It was just time for a change, he indicated.
“It was nice to go in, start over and see how they do [things] somewhere else,” he said, “because I was [at Roush Racing] so long.
“There were probably times where you felt you were beating your head against the wall. Or you were helping as much as you could help and couldn’t make it better.”
He didn’t know what to expect at JGR. But he certainly didn’t expect a seven-victory season and what has been a costarring role in the Chase for the Cup championship fight.