AVONDALE, Ariz. — Matt Kenseth acted like he had just won in a must-win situation Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.
Maybe it was.
Kenseth, already out of NASCAR championship contention, didn’t have the win-and-in scenario that five playoff drivers faced when the green dropped in the Can-Am 500.
But the way he acted — his tears, his comedic humor, his reflection on an incredible 649-race NASCAR Cup resume — showed that he needed this win for closure as the sun sets on what currently is a 39-win, one-Cup championship career that most likely will end next week at Homestead.
“I try to never let anybody see me cry,” Kenseth said after snapping a 51-race winless streak. “But I’m kind of an emotional guy typically, honestly. I just try to hide it well.
“That’s why I always sit in the back row of the drivers meeting. And church.”
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver played spoiler on the day when NASCAR set its four-driver NASCAR championship field. Kenseth was knocked out of contention earlier in the playoffs, and five drivers entered the day looking for that win to vault them into real championship hopes. Brad Keselowski ended up advancing after a 16th-place finish.
None will go into that race with momentum from a win but many probably didn’t mind to see Kenseth win for a feel-good moment to a guy many believe can still get the job done.
“It’s just been quite a journey,” Kenseth said. “Today was a really special day for me to know that next week is almost for sure my last week behind the wheel.
“To be able to have such a long season and kick it off like this. A lot of things I don’t really understand, but I probably knew around August that it really wasn’t meant for me to be racing anymore at this level. With that, I probably fought it for too long.”
In maybe the last month, Kenseth has embraced his new future, one that includes another baby on the way in December.
“Not many people get to go out in really good cars and win races and have a chance to win a championship,” Kenseth said. “It’s really a blessing to go to work every day and work as hard as you can on it, put everything into it that you’ve got.”
A year ago at Phoenix, Kenseth didn’t feel all that blessed. He was leading when a late caution came out and then he crashed battling Alex Bowman for the lead on the restart.
His spotter took the blame at the time, but that accident and Bowman’s move has bothered Kenseth for a year.
“We’ve had a lot of close ones ever since I felt like the snowball was here last fall when we were 10 seconds away from going to the championship four and caught that late caution and got wrecked on that restart,” Kenseth said.
“Ever since, it never feels like it is meant to be. Today, it was definitely meant to be.”
Joining Kenseth in the emotional day was crew chief Jason Ratcliff. Ratcliff is expected to be replaced by Chris Gayle, the current crew chief for Eric Jones as Jones moves to replace Kenseth with the car.
Ratcliff said he knows what he will do next season but cannot say.
“We left here last year, it was probably the lowest point in my career knowing that if we could have just finished the race, obviously won it, we would have been one of the four going to Homestead, and then 365 days later, come back and maybe create probably, I would say for sure, the highlight of my career to this point,” Ratcliff said.
“It’s a very emotional win — the last five years have been just spectacular. We’ve had some really good wins, some great seasons, a lot of highlight reels, but I think this one tops it for sure.”
If the win was fate, so has the last several months as rides opened up at various teams but a sponsor couldn’t be found for the oldest current full-time Cup driver (Kenseth is 45). With his resume, he likely would command a salary higher than a rookie and he wasn’t going to a place where he didn’t feel he could compete for a championship. That’s why he left Roush Fenway Racing for Joe Gibbs Racing five years ago.
“It shows that there’s no reason why he couldn’t have gotten a job anywhere else,” Kenseth’s JGR teammate Kyle Busch said. “It’s just I guess the industry didn’t see Matt Kenseth as their driver, and that’s really, really unfortunate because I love the guy and have raced with respect for him for a long, long time and will forever respect him for what he’s done for the sport.”
Don’t expect Kenseth to check his social media feed to see if fans shared his emotion. Maybe it would make him too emotional. It apparently has in the past.
“I do not check social media,” Kenseth said. “I don’t know if you know this, but there’s a lot of people that say mean stuff and like to fight on there.
“That’s what somebody told me, anyway.”
He doesn’t need social media. He’s ending his career.
“I feel like I can win races and run for championships,” Kenseth said. “But with that being said, you have to have the supporting cast. You’ve got to have the cars, you’ve got to have the team, you’ve got to have the sponsorship.
“You’ve got to have the manufacturer, and I got all that where I’m at right now, and there’s not an opportunity to continue to race here. … If I can’t be in a situation that feels right and feels like I can go out and win races and contend for a championship, I’d rather not do it.”