Matt Kenseth debriefed with his team after Happy Hour at Phoenix International Raceway on Saturday, took care of business and then headed for his Nationwide Series car.
The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota never showed concern over Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 — or his challenge to reclaim seven points from Jimmie Johnson, who was victorious last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway with two races remaining in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“I felt good when I woke up this morning, I still feel good,” said Kenseth, who posted the fifth-fastest lap (134.559 mph) in final practice.
“I thought it was a productive practice session. We got most of what we wanted to find out — and a lot of things we want to look at. Jason (Ratcliff, his crew chief) is always real good at taking all the separate pieces and sticking them together for Sunday and having it right.
“I feel like we found a bunch lot of little bits here and there that were positive — and of course you always find some negatives. I think we’ll get it together and be all right.”
Johnson, the pole-sitter, was 10th on the speed chart in Happy Hour. But the team was satisfied following practice.
“It felt good,” Johnson radioed to crew chief Chad Knaus. “Not as good as earlier, but we’re in pretty good shape here.”
Entering the weekend, Johnson thought it was imperative to earn a top qualifying spot. Since the repave at PIR two years ago, the surface has evolved into a single-file track, and passing has been difficult which makes track position crucial.
Kenseth doesn’t seem fazed by the fact he’ll start the race 13 positions behind Johnson on Sunday. Or that Johnson has the first pit box and leads the Sprint Cup tour with four wins and 932 laps led in 20 starts at Phoenix.
In 22 starts, Kenseth has one win, five top-fives and nine top-10 finishes. While his average finish is 17.2 at Phoenix, Kenseth posted a seventh-place finish in March — his first top-10 in five starts.
Kenseth joked that his “best-case scenario is to lead every lap and win the race,” but he’s realistic enough to know that his last victory at this one-mile flat oval came 11 years ago.
“You can’t predict the races,” Kenseth said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what’s going to happen in the first corner. I think most people will be on the same strategy. It’s going to be hard to make up track position on strategy. So you take off, you run a hard pace — but yet a pace that you know will last all day — and pass as many cars as your car is capable of passing, have the best pit stops that you can and work your way to the front.”
Regardless of the outcome of the Chase, 2013 has “been a great season” for Kenseth. Since his move to Joe Gibbs Racing this season, Kenseth’s seven wins and 1,639 laps led is a career best.
“After we won the first two (races) of the Chase, I said that no matter what happened in the last seven, it was still going to be a great year,” Kenseth said. “It’s funny how your views and your goals and what you want to accomplish change. It’s kind of a moving target. Obviously, when you’re in this spot, you’re like, ‘Ah, man.’ If you don’t end up winning the championship it’s hard to not be just a little bit disappointed when you’re in that spot, because you just don’t get that many opportunities to win it.
“For sure, no matter how it ends up the next two weeks, it has been an unbelievable year. It’s been one of probably the best years of my career, really, with the things that we’ve done on the race track from a performance standpoint, the wins we’ve had, the laps we’ve led — all the things that we’ve done. It’s been a great year no matter what."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is “not conflicted at all” when it comes to pulling for his teammate Jimmie Johnson over one of his best friends, Matt Kenseth, to win the championship.
Earnhardt understands that what benefits Hendrick Motorsports eventually will trickle down to his No. 88 team.
“I want what’s best for the company that I’m working for, and indirectly it will help assist our team,” Earnhardt said.
"When Jimmie or any of the other guys are running well, it’s good for us. Indirectly, it affects us down the line. I focus on: How can I improve performance for my team? How can our team improve? When our company is successful, that’s going to help us.”
Kenseth’s and Earnhardt’s relationship developed in the Nationwide Series as the 20-somethings battled for the title. Although Earnhardt was victorious in his Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevys, Kenseth won Cup rookie honors in 2000 and the title in 2003.
“Matt and I are good friends,” Earnhardt said. “He’s going to have his share of opportunities along with this year as long as he sticks with Joe (Gibbs, team owner), but I’m hoping we can be battling with him for those down the line.”
In his sixth season with HMS, Earnhardt has matched his numbers from last year, but his consistency in the Chase is the best it’s ever been. His three second-place finishes and six top-10s in the first eight playoff races have elevated Earnhardt to fifth in the point standings with two races remaining. He trails fourth-place Kyle Busch by 10 points.
After starting the Chase with an engine failure at Chicagoland Speedway, Earnhardt never expected to recover this quickly.
“We are just trying to give it all we can each week, and see what we accomplish,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve already come a lot further than I thought we would after Chicago.
“I’m really proud of the team, and how they’ve hung in there, and they have done their best work in the last six weeks or so."
Traditionally, Phoenix has been one of Earnhardt’s better tracks. He posted consecutive wins here in 2003-2004. After a 16-race drought without a top-five finish, Earnhardt led 47 laps here in March before finishing fifth.
Earnhardt is encouraged that the No. 88 team can keep building momentum. He believes this current run is just the beginning of what the team can accomplish.
“I think we’ve gotten better each year,” Earnhardt said. “We keep improving. … If we can stick together, I think we continue to gain on it.
“We’re right on the cusp of breaking through, and I’ll be happy to see us continue to improve, because we don’t have far to go until we’re winning races. That’s the trajectory we’re on looking at the last three or four years.”
After Brad Keselowski was wrecked by Brian Scott in the Nationwide Series race, Roger Penske’s lead in the owner point standings dropped from 26 points to four over Joe Gibbs Racing. That prompted Joey Logano to tweet “racing is a team sport” followed by:
Owners championship is important to sponsors, team members, road guys and 400 people that make a living and work at the shop on our cars
1 — Win for Gray Gaulding in the K&N Racing Pro Series in 17 starts.
169 of 200 — Laps led by Kyle Busch in the Nationwide Series race at Phoenix on Saturday.
12 — Wins in 2013 for Kyle Busch — one fewer than his record 13, set in 2010.
8 — Points lead for Austin Dillon over Sam Hornish Jr. in the Nationwide Series point standings.
Martin Truex Jr. rolls off 10th on Sunday at Phoenix. With just two races left in the No. 56 Toyota, the driver says he has nothing to prove.
“No not really, I just want to end of a high note,” Truex said. “My guys have worked so hard for me over the last four years. They do such a good job. It’s been kind of sad to see it end this way. We had such high expectations together. When you think about it, this was only the second year we had together as a team — a full season as a team together.
"We really felt we were starting to get where we wanted to go together — Chad (Johnston, crew chief) and I, the whole group. It was such a great group of guys. You hate when the carpet gets pulled out from under you like that. You really can’t fulfill the expectations you have for yourself. We had what we thought was going to be two more good years. We don’t have a lot to prove. We just want to end on a high note. We want to go out swinging.”