Team: #20 (Joe Gibbs Racing)
Top 5s: 8
Top 10s: 19
Best finish: 1st (Dover, Loudon)
Points finish: 5th
Matt Kenseth ended the 2015 season mired in controversy after his run-ins with Joey Logano during the Chase. As 2016 arrived, he looked to move on from the rivalry and give Joe Gibbs Racing their second straight championship.
Kenseth kicked off the year on a strong note that ended in heartbreak. After dominating the Daytona 500, his attempts to block teammate Denny Hamlin from passing him for the win on the final lap culminated with a trip to the wall as the two made contact; while Hamlin would edge out Martin Truex Jr. for the victory, Kenseth was forced to settle for 16th. The rough start to the season continued in the early stages as he recorded only two top-10 finishes in the first ten races and dropping as low as 18th in points after Bristol. Talladega was the epitome of his struggles as he collided with Logano and Danica Patrick, sending him airborne and flipping into the inside retaining wall.
Despite the poor results, Kenseth punched his ticket to the Chase with a dramatic win at Dover, followed by a second win at Loudon. His inconsistent results continued during the regular season; in the 14 races since his Dover win, he recorded seven top-10s, four top-20s and crashed out of two races.
Kenseth opened the Chase with five straight top-10s, including a pole at Kansas. A 28th-place finish at the second Talladega race ended the streak, but he was high enough in points to keep him in contention. However, despite his solid finishes in the first two Round of 8 races, a 21st-place finish at Phoenix ended his Chase hopes.
He ended the 2016 season with 19 top-10s, the first time he failed to record 20 top-10s since his last season at Roush Fenway Racing in 2012. His eight top-5s were the fewest since he recorded just six in 2010, while his lone pole marked the first one-pole season since 2012.
His Dover win. A race that many fans considered one of the best of the season, Kenseth needed a spark to make a run for the Chase, especially as he came off a 4th-place run at Kansas the week before. Entering Dover, he had led laps in all but one race, but did not have the results to show for it.
Kenseth started the race in 10th but did not have much of an impact on the race itself. On lap 356, a majority of the race leaders were taken out in a wreck coming to the green flag, which enabled Kenseth to take the lead after he elected to take only right-side tires. He did not need to worry about the left side, as a later caution allowed them to cool down.
As he continued to lead with the finish slowly arriving, Kenseth was faced with the closing threats of Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. While the two drivers battled for 2nd, Kenseth was able to pull away from the duo and claim his first win of the season, ending a 17-race winless streak.
“It all worked out for us, kind of the opposite as I feel like it’s been going the last couple months,” Kenseth stated. “We’ve had really fast race cars, we’ve been in position to win a lot. This wasn’t our fastest car by any means, but we were able to be there at the end of the race and pull it off.”
The Round of 8 elimination race at Phoenix. His Chase hopes on the line despite 4th- and 7th-place finishes at Martinsville and Texas; he needed a win to continue his championship hunt.
The race was dominated by the Hendrick car of Alex Bowman, but Kenseth remained in contention, taking the lead during a caution on lap 258. He went on to lead 55 laps and was in position to advance. With just two laps to go, Michael McDowell cut a tire to bring out another caution. On the restart, Kenseth’s teammate Kyle Busch attempted to pass Bowman, who started next to Kenseth, on the inside. The two made contact, but Bowman was able to recover and tried to pass Kenseth. Kenseth did not notice Bowman’s #88 approaching and came down on him, spinning the #20 around. Kenseth finished 21st and was eliminated.
“‘Disappointed’ would put it lightly,” Kenseth commented. “It finished our season. Five minutes before that, it looked like we were going to have a chance to go race for a championship.”
Kenseth’s spotter Chris Osborne took responsibility for the contact, saying he had told his driver that he was clear when he was not. Kenseth did not blame his spotter and remarked, “It’s a team effort. We win as a team; we lose as a team. I can’t blame Chris. I didn’t really see what happened. He said I was clear, so I started looking toward the corner, I got turned around.”
JGR appears to have no signs of stopping their success in NASCAR’s premier series. However, Kenseth’s time in the sport continues to run out in his quest for a second series championship continues.
After finishing 2nd in points in 2013, Kenseth has been unable to advance to the Championship Round under the current Chase format. We will have to see if he can finally break through and fight for a title in 2017.
Featured image courtesy of NASCAR.com