KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) Matt Kenseth walked quietly into the interview at Kansas Speedway, sat behind a microphone, and was asked to reflect on last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
”I can hardly remember last week,” he replied, ”much less last year.”
Probably a good thing.
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Just about everything that could go wrong for Kenseth did a week ago at Charlotte, from pit-road penalties to rubbing the wall. He ultimately finished so far off the lead that his Chase hopes took a major hit, and now he arrives at Kansas in desperate need of a victory that would guarantee him one of the eight spots in the ”eliminator” round.
If not this week, then next at Talladega – an even bigger wildcard track.
”For me it’s really no different. We try to show up and try to do the best we can every week,” Kenseth said. ”Same this week. Obviously a win moves you on, but I don’t think this is a must-win. Just try to do the best we can and be ready on Sunday.”
Kenseth has every reason to be optimistic this weekend.
Start with the fact that he’s won twice at Kansas, has sat on the pole twice more, and put together six top-five finishes at the speedy mile-and-a-half tri-oval. He’s led more than 500 laps in all, and has been in the top 10 in nine of his past 10 starts.
Then, consider that his five victories this season are the most of any driver, and that his Joe Gibbs Racing stable won 13 times in all, more than any other team.
So, does all that positive karma combined with his back-against-the-wall situation mean Kenseth – who will start 11th on Sunday is more apt to take some chances in the 400-mile race?
”The rewards are greater if you win, obviously. I don’t know if the penalty is worse or not” if a risky maneuver fails, he replied.
”From what happened last week, we had a lot of things that got us to where we are, had a lot of things go wrong.”
The former series champion won the pole and led 72 laps at Charlotte, but he tangled with Ryan Newman in Turn 4 and damaged his suspension. After a myriad of other problems trying to get his car straightened out, his right tire went down and he made hard contact with the wall.
As a result, he dropped from first in points heading into the race to last among the drivers in the Chase, the 42nd-place finish ramping up the anxiety level over the next two weeks.
”I didn’t watch it, to be honest with you,” Kenseth said of his tangle with Newman. ”I’m sure at the end of the day it was my fault. But neither Ryan nor I wanted to be in the position to be hurtful. Can’t do anything about last week. Try to be smarter.”
Besides, Kenseth isn’t the only one facing long odds of advancing in the Chase.
His teammate, Kyle Busch, was fastest in final practice at Charlotte and running third when a caution came out. Busch made a move as if he was headed to pit road, steered back onto the track and wound up slamming into Kyle Larson, who was running second and tried to pit.
Busch never recovered from the incident, finishing 20th. That dropped him to 10th in the Chase standings, 10 points out of the eighth and final spot in the next round.
He will start third on Sunday at a track that has caused him trouble in the past.
”Good starting spot for sure, definitely a really good starting position,” he said. ”That will give us the pit selection we wanted and we were shooting for when we were coming here.”
Things are even more dire for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
He slammed into the first-turn wall just past the halfway point at Charlotte, then said NASCAR failed to clean up oil that Justin Allgaier’s car sprayed on the track.
Series officials said there was no oil on the upper line where Earnhardt was running, but the whole argument was moot: He wound up finishing 28th and dropped to 11th in the standings.
Unlike Kenseth, Earnhardt admitted that he faces a must-win situation at Kansas.
”We ain’t got nothing to lose,” he said. ”Just go out there and run hard and try to win races and try to run up front. We’re not close enough to the top eight or whatever – we’re not close enough to sort of have a strategy. We’re just going to go out there and race.”