Kenseth returned with a top-10 in his first race back; Other drivers took notice
Matt Kenseth ran his last full-time NASCAR Cup Series season in 2017 with Joe Gibbs Racing. The team let the driver go, which had more to do with sponsorship than performance.
He returned the next year on a part-time basis with Roush-Fenway Racing. That’s a team that’s struggled in recent years. Kenseth played an important development role.
In 2020, Kyle Larson was abruptly fired by Chip Ganassi Racing after using a racial slur during an iRacing event. The team had only a few weeks to fill the seat of the No. 42. Kenseth was an easy candidate.
Related: NASCAR driver Kyle Larson drops N-word (Video)
NASCAR returned on Sunday via Darlington Raceway. Kenseth jumped in cold turkey with no practice or qualifying session. He rolled off from the 12th position.
Kenseth on his NASCAR return
“Kind of nerve-racking,” Matt Kenseth said of the opening laps.
“Then it was sort of back to racing and thinking about what we needed to be better. Everyone on the team has worked extremely hard the last couple weeks to prepare for today, and I’m proud of what we accomplished today.”
Kenseth drove the car to a 10th place finish. Teammate Kurt Busch took notice of the running with smiles after the race.
Kenseth continued, “I learned a lot throughout the race about the way the car handles and reacts to different situations, and it was nice to really get acclimated to the Camaro and the team in a real racing environment.”
“It’s always a good feeling to get a top- at a place like Darlington, but to have done it under these circumstances feels that much better. I still have some room to improve, but today shows all of us we have a lot to look forward to as the season continues.”
The dry humor was back in full force over the team radio. At the end of stage one, Kenseth came over the team radio to ask, “When is the next hot dog break?”
Matt Kenseth says the new cars are easier to drive
At this point, the rules package isn’t new. But, for a driver that’s been on the sidelines for the past few years, it’s all new.
The last time Kenseth ran a NASCAR Cup Series event at Darlington, he had 200+ more horsepower under the hood. At the same time, the old car had far less downforce.
The new package is polar opposite with a tapered engine spacer, aero ducts and a large rear spoiler.
“Certainly, this package makes the cars easier to drive than what they were when I left,” Kenseth said on Monday in a teleconference. “When you have less power and more drag, everything is happening just a little bit slower and that helps with the adjustment as well.”
“You have to be much more strategic, especially on restarts,” Kenseth said. “The first three or four laps there were, I hate to say luck, but being on the right line on restarts was important. I’d imagine this will be a lot more important when we get to places like Charlotte where you have a lot of grip and can run closer to wide-open, if completely not wide-open.
Passing with the new rules package
“But yeah, you had to be more patient. There were times where if it was the old package, you would catch somebody on a restart, you would turn under them and try to pass them, and you could usually make that pass.”
“I caught myself doing that a few times; you’d get alongside of someone and then four cars would pass you down the straightaway on the top.”
“So, you certainly had to be more patient, I think. You had to get whatever you could get on restarts, but you also had to be careful to not get yourself in a position where you would get your car bogged down on the straightaway. … So, certainly a little more strategy involved, particularly when the cars were bunched up, than there used to be.”
“I don’t know why, but I just had 12th in my head,” Kenseth said. “My daughters, everybody had 12th. I would have been pretty happy with being 12th my first day, so finishing 10th I thought was really good.”
Kevin Harvick on Matt Kenseth
Kevin Harvick drove to the race win on Sunday at Darlington Raceway. But, he commented on the 10th place runner.
“Matt Kenseth was winning races when he [stepped away],” Harvick said.
“As you look at that whole situation when he got kind of moved out at Joe Gibbs Racing. Matt Kenseth is going to be a huge part of that race team and making Chip Ganassi Racing better.”
“He’s going to be great for the sponsors. Experience and skill go a long way in our sport. If you have those two things, like Matt does, you’re going to be successful. You don’t just forget how to do that. Matt’s a pro and a very good one at that.”
The NASCAR Cup Series returns to the track on Wednesday night for round two at Darlington Raceway.
Related: Darlington Starting Lineup – May 20, 2020 (NASCAR Cup Series)
Matt Kenseth | Joe Gibbs Racing | Kevin Harvick | NASCAR | Darlington Raceway