Sometimes, no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, things just don’t go your way.
And that, in a nutshell, is what Matt Kenseth experienced in Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
Kenseth, who has enjoyed a career year in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, had a nightmare afternoon at PIR, finishing 23rd and frankly not running any better than his final spot indicated.
It was by far Kenseth’s worst of the nine races contested so far in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and it virtually killed his hopes at a second Sprint Cup championship to go with the one he earned in 2003.
“We haven’t had a day like this all year,” said Kenseth after his woeful outing.
Kevin Harvick won the race when leader Carl Edwards ran out of fuel coming to the white flag. NASCAR Sprint Cup points leader Jimmie Johnson finished third and now leads Kenseth by 28 points and Harvick by 34.
So after winning the first two races of the Chase — and a career-high seven races this season — Kenseth finds himself needing to win the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, lead the most laps and hope that Jimmie Johnson finishes 24th or worse without leading a lap. Otherwise, Johnson wins his sixth championship.
Nothing went right for Kenseth at Phoenix. Even his usual crack pit crew, arguably the best in the business, had a miserable 25.6-second four-tire pit stop on Lap 165, not knowing whether they were going to take two left-side tires, two right-side tires or four. Ultimately, they opted for four, but not before a comedy of errors running around.
After qualifying 14th, Kenseth struggled mightily all day long, wrestling a bad aero push, which didn’t allow the nose of his No. 18 JGR Toyota to turn in. At one point, his crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, radioed Kenseth and said, “I don't have anything on pit road to fix that.”
And so it went.
No matter what Ratcliff tried, the car never got any better, and as the race went on, Kenseth continued to slip back. And at the end of the day, he was 23rd. The car just didn’t run well and no amount of tuning on it helped. It was the first time in 17 races that Kenseth didn’t finish on the lead lap.
For his part, Ratcliff accepted the responsibility for the poor outing, saying the car would not react to setup changes all through the race.
“We would make a change and it wouldn't help it,” said Ratcliff. “So, we'd put that back and make another change, and I don't know that it was better or worse. It was like, 'Man, just quit working on the thing. It's just not responding.' And you get back in traffic and it compounds it. So, I think we were just trying to make something out of nothing. I don't really think we had a strong car at all today, unfortunately.”
But the bad pit stop really sealed the team’s fate.
“And, then just snowballed and got us way behind, mix up on pit road — that's a perfect storm,” said Ratcliff. “You go to put left sides on and nobody comes down pit road behind you. You're thinking, ‘Man, let's just put four on.’ And the bad part about it is you've already called lefts and your guys have left side tires in their hands. It's really bad. Just a bad job on my part today.”
Afterwards, Kenseth understandably focused on the many positives of the season as best he could, now that a championship is all but out of reach.
"I'm disappointed, obviously with the way our season has gone and kind of being in the championship hunt, you hope to go down to Homestead and race for it on performance,” said Kenseth. “On the other hand, I'm extremely happy. I'm really, really happy with my team. There's not another car out here I'd want to be driving. It's a special group of guys — we've had just an amazing, incredible season and we still have one week left. … We still have a week to go. Hopefully, we can go to Homestead and go down there and contend for a win.”
Johnson, who is on the verge of locking up his sixth championship. said he thought the No. 20 would run better than it did.
“Yes, surprised, and at the same time, I went through it last year,” said Johnson, who finished third behind race-winner Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne. “I don't know how to quite describe it, but it can happen. I thought that yesterday in the final practice session they made a nice run, and I thought that they got themselves where they needed to be. But clearly today that wasn't the case.”