Matt Kenseth’s 2016 season ended in a considerably different manner than the year before, but the final result included the same disappointment about what could have been.
There was no intentional crashing, no bitter feud with Joey Logano and no landmark NASCAR suspension this time around — although Kenseth’s 2015 wreck of Logano and subsequent two-race penalty won’t be forgotten soon — but Kenseth was again on the short end of the stick when it came to a tight finish with major championship implications. This time it was Phoenix, as Kenseth led late in the season’s penultimate race.
A win or a top-5 finish would have secured Kenseth a place in the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and his best chance at a championship since 2013, when he finished runner-up. Instead, Kenseth’s hopes ended when his No. 20 spun into the Turn 1 wall during an overtime restart. Contact with Alex Bowman, largely initiated by Kenseth thinking he was clear at corner entry, was the culprit.
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A dominant performance was crushed in a matter of seconds.
“It’s more than disappointing,” Kenseth said then. “We still had the race in control even on that last restart, and I ended up giving it away.”
The spoiled result was a small sample of a larger problem for Kenseth last season. No driver in NASCAR’s Premier Series (now Monster Energy NASCAR Cup) lost more positions after a race’s halfway point than Kenseth. He lost, on average, more than five spots in that span, and the effects were notable as Kenseth scored only eight top-5 finishes to mark a six-year low.
Still, Kenseth had 19 top-10 runs, and he called it an “overall competitive season.” Chemistry with longtime crew chief Jason Ratcliff remains strong as bad breaks, not bad handling, proved to be their biggest problem.
“We only had one pole and didn’t qualify as well as we had for the last few years,” Kenseth says. “We only won a couple of races but I felt like we were in position to win a lot more.
“I just feel like we had a lot of things go wrong at the end of races that held us back. It was for different reasons all of the time.”
Kenseth, 44 years old and 614 starts into his Cup career, now moves to the 2017 season amid routine questions about his future in NASCAR. There’s been no word about a contract extension between him and Joe Gibbs Racing (his current deal expires at the end of this season), and the No. 20 will see a shift this year as sponsor Dollar General departs the sport entirely. Longtime Kenseth sponsor DeWalt is covering some extra races as a primary sponsor to fill the void but no additional backers have been announced.
“I don’t really feel like I’m that close to where I can put a date on (retirement), to be honest with you,” Kenseth told reporters last August. “I feel great. More times than not, I’m having fun. I feel like we’re really competitive more times than not. We’re capable of winning races and championships still. So that’s just way on the bottom of my list of things to think about or worry about at the moment.”
But sponsor concerns are likely not the driving force behind where Kenseth will end up after this season. Instead, JGR is facing the dilemma of what to do with its roster of young drivers. One of them, Erik Jones, will spend at least this season in the new No. 77 Toyota at JGR affiliate Furniture Row Racing.
Just don’t expect fear of the unknown to paralyze Kenseth. He’s been here before, like when he signed and announced his 2013 move to Joe Gibbs Racing early in the 2012 season and still managed a “lame duck” campaign at Roush Fenway Racing that included three wins and 13 top-5 finishes. No matter his future, the present remains promising at JGR.