How Matt Kenseth turned a season of bad luck around for win at Dover

NASCAR is the only sport I know of that ends every event with one driver winning and the remaining 39 all losing. 

In that way it is unrelentingly brutal, a sport where the overwhelming majority of competitors leave each Sunday in various degrees of frustration and anger.

4 keys to Matt Kenseth's first victory of the season

Take Sunday’s AAA 400 Drive For Autism at Dover International Speedway.

Kevin Harvick could have won but he had a series of poor pit stops for most of the race.

Jimmie Johnson could have won, but his gearbox broke on a late-race restart, taking 17 other drivers with him.

Carl Edwards could have won, but he checked up and spun headfirst into the backstretch SAFER barrier by Kyle Larson.

Martin Truex Jr. could have won, but he chose the wrong lane to restart in. 

Matt Kenseth holds off Kyle Larson to win at Dover

Brad Keselowski could have won, but he ran into the back of Austin Dillon after Dillon hit the wall and slowed unexpectedly.

I could go on here, but you get the idea.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

Matt Kenseth, who survived and prevailed to win at Dover in a pitched battle with young guns Larson and Chase Elliott knows all about that. 

Because in the first 11 NASCAR Sprint Cup races of 2016, Kenseth should have won at least twice and maybe as many as four times, but instead went home as one of the 39 losers every week. 

Kenseth’s racing luck wasn’t bad, it was awful. The poor guy got hit with about every plague there is, short of locusts, frogs and boils.

He was leading the Daytona 500 on the last lap and got hung out in the draft and finished 14th. Ten laps from the end at Martinsville, he restarted second only to finish 15th.

In between, there were refueling issues on pit road in Atlanta, contact with walls in Las Vegas and other cars at Talladega, blown tires at Bristol and electrical issues at Richmond. 

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But suddenly, and unexpectedly, it all came good at Dover, where Kenseth’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates were the ones who had issues. Them and about three-quarters of the field. 

And things went very right for an obviously relieved Kenseth.

"It feels good to be here, been a tough few months, for sure," Kenseth said after the race. "These guys did a great job, did a great job on pit road today. Obviously Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) and these guys did a great job with the car and adjustments as well as Toyota and TRD (Toyota Racing Development)."

As is his customary style, Kenseth wasn’t especially emotional afterwards.

"We had a good car today," he said in Victory Lane. "I thought we were competitive and there were a few guys at different parts of the race that were a little bit better and Kyle (Larson) gave me all I wanted at the end, and then some. We were fortunate to be able to hold him off."

In truth, it was probably more talent than fortune that got Kenseth the 37th career Sprint Cup victory. He sized up where Larson was going to make his move and defending his ground expertly.

"Kyle Larson is extremely talented and I knew if I was on the bottom, he was going to be on the top," Kenseth explained. "We got so free, I started working that middle groove and I was able to get just far enough ahead. If he would have snuck outside of me, it would have been over. I had just enough momentum to stay in front of him."

And in the end, that’s exactly what it took for Kenseth to be the one guy who won, while 39 others didn’t.