Matt Kenseth didn’t leave any of his game in the garage Sunday night, fending off an aggressive late-race charge from Dale Earnhardt Jr. to finish second behind his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin in the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Alas, it was not enough to deliver a second Sprint Cup title for Kenseth, the 2003 series champion, as Jimmie Johnson’s ninth-place finish was enough to secure a sixth championship for the Hendrick Motorsports title.
Kenseth had a big weekend at Homestead, qualifying on the pole, leading the field in all three practices and leading the most laps in Sunday’s race. But Johnson’s 28-point lead coming into the race was just too much to overcome.
And afterwards he had no complaints, taking special delight in going mano a mano with Earnhardt, his old buddy from their NASCAR Nationwide Series days in the late 1990s. After some hair-raising swaps of second-place in the closing laps of the race, the two shared a post-race press conference afterwards.
“Had a great weekend, great night,” said Kenseth. “Had a lot of fun racing Dale Jr. Like he said, wish it was for a win, but that was a lot of fun. It’s always fun to race somebody that you like and that you can trust, you race hard with back and forth, know what to expect. It was a really fun night. Obviously both of us sitting here wanted to come up with a win. If Jimmie (Johnson) would have got a flat or something that would have been okay there at the end, too.”
Despite coming up just short of a title, it was an amazing season for Kenseth, who won a career-high seven races after visiting Victory Lane just 24 times in his first 13 Cup seasons.
Kenseth came out of the box red hot, leading 86 laps of the Daytona 500 before an engine failure sidelined his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Two weeks later, Kenseth scored his first victory with the team at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and from there, he was off and running. Kenseth won again in the spring at Kansas Speedway and Darlington Raceway. In the summer, he scored victories at Kentucky Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway.
When the Chase for the Sprint Cup began, Kenseth won the opening two races at Chicagoland Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He led the points until a 20th-place finish at Talladega dropped him behind Johnson in the standings. Kenseth retook the lead with a runner-up finish at Martinsville, but Johnson’s victory at Texas put him back on top for good.
But what derailed Kenseth’s title hopes was a 23rd-place run in the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix International Raceway.
Still, after the finale he had no regrets at all.
“I think when you look at our season overall, when I talk about it being the best season of my career, we didn’t come up with the championship — the championship is the ultimate goal, you always want that — but from a competitive standpoint it’s been by far the best season of my career,” said Kenseth.
“We led the most laps, qualified the best, I think probably best average finish, most wins, all that stuff. From a competitive standpoint, it was our best year. The final 10 (races), I didn’t get more points than Jimmie. We still ran good the final 10. We didn’t have any huge disasters. We just didn’t run good enough to beat him.”