Kenseth on Daytona finish: ‘I feel like I let my team down’

After coming less than half a lap short of his third Daytona 500 win, a sullen Matt Kenseth made no bones about whether Sunday’s outcome was among his biggest career heartbreaks.

"I’ve had a lot of them but, yeah, it ranks right up there," the dejected driver told after crossing the finish line in 14th place after giving up the lead on the final lap.

After taking the white flag with his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota out in front of the pack, Kenseth held the field at bay until a line formed on the outside coming down the backstretch.

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Leading that line was Kenseth’s JGR teammate, Denny Hamlin, who moved high and then quickly dove to Kenseth’s inside when Kenseth went up to block on the exit of Turn 4.

The two then briefly touched, with Kenseth losing momentum and falling all the way to 14th as Hamlin edged a charging Martin Truex Jr. at the finish line by the narrowest margin of victory in Daytona 500 history.

Unlike Truex, who seemed relatively upbeat for a guy who had just lost the sport’s biggest race by one one-hundredth of a second, Kenseth couldn’t mask his disappointment. It was especially tough after leading 40 laps in a backup car his team pulled out after his involvement in a multi-car wreck on the final lap of his Can-Am Duel qualifying race at Daytona.

"It’s really frustrating and it’s really disappointing," said Kenseth, who joined JGR in 2013 after spending his entire career from his rookie year of 2000 with Roush Fenway Racing. "I felt like I let my team down pretty much for two weeks straight here and today was no exception to that. It’s disappointing when they put you in a positon to win and you can’t get it done as a driver."

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Kenseth’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, was surprised that the outside line — led by Hamlin and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick — made such headway on the last lap.

"We hadn’t seen it all day," Ratcliff said. "And you’ll go back and play that in your head time and time again. Sometimes it just works out like that. Certain situations and the way the air works and everything, you think you know what’s going to happen, but you don’t. It’s disappointing.

"Sometimes it’s tough to be the leader and have to watch in your mirror and know which line’s going to go and which one isn’t. I thought we had them where we wanted them, but we know how this place is."

Three-time Super Bowl-winning coach Joe Gibbs, who owns the car of both Hamlin and Kenseth, talked with Kenseth after the race.

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"Matt is the consummate teammate and he knows how to handle things," said Gibbs, whose only other Daytona 500 win came in 1993 with Dale Jarrett. "He was not upset. He said, ‘Man, I was wanting to be the guy that got this for you.’ We had a good talk and he didn’t refer to anything that happened in the race or anything."

Even the jubilant Hamlin, who captured his first win in the 500, exhibited some degree of empathy for his elder teammate.

"I feel awful for Matt because he’s such a great friend and such a great teammate," Hamlin said.

Kenseth conceded that if he had to lose The Great American Race, he would rather it be to a teammate.

"That’s what being teammates is all about is to get everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing running good, and we did that today," he said. "Those guys got the finish. I didn’t, unfortunately."

Kenseth was emphatic that Hamlin’s bold last-lap move and the resulting contact between the two didn’t go farther than what is acceptable etiquette among team cars.

"You’re trying to win the Daytona 500," said Kenseth, the 2003 Sprint Cup champion. "I tried to get in front of him and block him. He got there on the left rear and got me loose. He was doing what he needed to do to win, and it obviously worked out for him, and it just didn’t quite work out for us."

So how long will it take the No. 20 team to move past the letdown of Sunday?

"As soon as the plane lands in Concord (N.C.) and we step off and get on the ground and get our luggage, this one’s over," Ratcliff said. "We’re pushing toward Atlanta when the sun comes up in the morning, and we’ll try to win that one."