Kenseth "pretty relaxed" despite precarious playoff position

Matt Kenseth’s less than scintillating run to the 2003 Cup championship was the catalyst for NASCAR’s modern-day playoff system.

Kenseth "pretty relaxed" despite precarious playoff position
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Jason Ratcliff

After Kenseth won just one race en route to his title, NASCAR introduced The Chase for the Championship the following year in hopes of sparking fan interest during football season.

Since then, Kenseth has qualified for all but one of the 13 post-season contests. In 2009, despite winning the Daytona 500 and the Auto Club 500 the following week at Fontana, Kenseth failed to transfer into what was then a 12-driver playoff grid.

With just three playoff spots up for grabs — and two races to determine the final three of 16 contenders for this year’s title — Kenseth is not locked in for the first time in eight years. The same consistency that carried him to the title in 2003 has been missing through most of this season.

Feeling no pressure

But if Kenseth is feeling the pressure, he isn’t showing his hand.

“I’m pretty relaxed,” Kenseth said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “You can’t change anything, any of the races we’ve run this year. You can’t make any of the finishes that are behind you any better. You just take one week at a time and try to get better every week and keep trying to put up a number.”

Kenseth has done just that. Prior to the off week after Bristol, the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team went on a tear. The 45-year-old veteran posted an eighth-place average finish over the last six races and moved up three positions to eighth in the Monster Energy Cup Series standings.

Kenseth trails Chase Elliott by eight points. Elliott is the highest driver in the standings without a victory, but he's also first among the winless group currently in a position for a playoff berth. Jamie McMurray sits ninth, three points behind Kenseth.

Will this recent turnaround be enough to lock Kenseth into the playoffs?

“We’ve ran pretty well,” Kenseth said. “I sure wished we’d have some wins. It’s been a long time since our last win — way too long (July 17, 2016 at New Hampshire). Certainly, we’ve run better. We’ve been more consistent. We just haven’t been able to quite get that win. But certainly, it’s been encouraging.

“We’ve shown a little more speed than we did earlier this year. Pit road has been going way, way better. They’ve been solid on pit road lately. I feel like everything is starting to click a little better. Still have 12 weeks of the season left. Certainly, you need to get into the playoffs, obviously, to have a shot at the championship. But we still have 12 more races to go out there and try to win some races.

“Hopefully, we’ll get one in the next two weeks so we have a spot locked into the playoffs and go racing then.”

Darlington chances

Kenseth won at Darlington Raceway in 2013, his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing. In 23 starts at the Track too Tough to Tame, Kenseth also has three top fives, 11 top 10s and one pole. He has led 193 of his 7,724 laps raced. In his last five starts on the 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval, he finished outside of the top-six just once.

“There’s always a lot of challenges when you go down there,” Kenseth said of Darlington. “It’s not just about hitting it right on Friday and Saturday, Sunday’s always a real different animal in the race. You just have to hope your guys hit it right to be good at the end of the race when you need to be.”

Kenseth has also been stout at Richmond as well. Both of his wins on the .75-miler have come in the fall race. In April, Kenseth won his second pole at Richmond and led the first 163 laps.

If he continues to post solid finishes over the next two races — and there are no new winners — Kenseth should be able to fend off the field of drivers looking to get into the playoffs on points.

“Even though I’ve been doing this a long time, I feel like the pressure has always been the same for me. Honestly, I’ve never really taken it for granted. Obviously, the situation I’m in for next year is proof that you can never take it for granted, I guess. I’ve always felt like every week you’re racing for your job. You got to put up numbers every week. It’s a very, very, very competitive sport. There’s a lot of good drivers. You’re racing against a lot of good teams — especially, right now. I feel the competition level is extremely high and all the cars are extremely close to the same speed.

“It’s typically the people that do the little things the best that are having the most success. You keep working on that as hard as you can and hopefully, you get the little things done right every weekend so you can compete up front and bust through and get those wins.”

What does the future hold?

Although Kenseth’s resume speaks for itself, the lame-duck driver has yet to announce his plans for next season. Rookie Erik Jones, 20, will replace Kenseth in the No. 20 JGR ride in 2018. Kenseth has met with team owner Gene Haas and still tops the list for Furniture Row Racing should the team be able to secure sponsorship for its second car. But for now, Kenseth says his first priority is finishing out 2017 strong.

“I’m focussed on the next 12 weeks. I’m really not focussed on (2018) at all,” Kenseth said. “I’ve got a lot of great things going on. Life is good for me. I have no complaints. I don’t know what’s going to go on on the racing front. I’m just not really worried about that.

“We have a great opportunity here in the next 12 weeks. It’s been a great — almost — five years at JGR. I feel like every year except 2014 we’ve had stuff that, if we did everything right, we could have raced for a championship. I’m disappointed that we’ve had three legitimate shots and haven’t gotten one yet. Just really focussed on getting in the playoff in the next two weeks and try to race for a championship and hopefully get one before my time is up there.”

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