Matt Kenseth was the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship points leader when the points were adjusted to start the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup after the race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway on Sept. 7. As the points leader, he kicked off the Chase with his six win of the season at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., last weekend after leading the most laps to earn maximum points and add to his lead atop the standings.
This weekend, the circuit heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon for the second race of the 10-race postseason — the Sylvania 300. Kenseth has never won in Loudon. On Tuesday, the 2003 champion participated in a NASCAR teleconference to discuss his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing and his bid for a second title this year, among other things. Here’s the transcript:
Q. Matt, you have a career-high six wins this season. What do you think is the key to your relationship with crew chief Jason Ratcliff?
MATT KENSETH: Well, I think that’s part of the key, is our relationship. I guess we hit it off right away from first time we met, kind of talked about things from the first time we went to the racetrack together.
Definitely it’s a team effort. The whole organization there, everybody that works on those cars, engines, gets them to the racetrack, pits them, it’s the whole thing.
It’s been a good combination. It’s been a good season so far. Hopefully can keep it rolling.
Q. Matt, you did not have a problem with your engine at Atlanta or Chicago, but there were problems with Toyota engines at Atlanta, and there were two at Chicago. Is that at all troubling to you?
MATT KENSETH: Well, I’m not sure about Atlanta. I know we were trying some new stuff there, something for next season, something to use later in the Chase. I know there was a little bit of experimenting in Atlanta.
Last week I don’t think they discriminated. I think all three makes had some engine problems. So I think last weekend with the cold weather, racing at night, all the extra rpms, being that fast and cold, was most likely hard on stuff.
Is it a concern? It’s always a concern breaking any kind of parts, having any kind of failure, anything that’s going to take you out of a good finish when you’re trying to race for a championship and stay in contention.
There’s not a lot we can do about it. Kind of like we talked about Sunday night, you try to get all the information you can, try to control all the things you can, try to be easy on any parts or pieces that could possibly break.
Certainly engines are one of the most critical pieces, and they take a lot of abuse. I guess you maybe always worry about that a little bit. When you get to the racetrack, you can’t do a lot about it so you concentrate on the things you can control and try to help that as much as you can and go from there.
Q. The Sprint commercial that debuted over the weekend with you and Clint, would you have preferred to have actual lines than sitting from what I hear was four hours of makeup?
MATT KENSETH: It was fun. It was something different. Not having lines is okay with me. I don’t mind doing stuff like that. It’s fun to do something different. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about whether I get to talk or not talk or being in it or not being in it.
Most of the time I was sitting in the chair listening to Clint, laughing at Clint, because he’s always entertaining when you’re around him especially because he doesn’t have a filter. I was actually thinking about racing in Chicago. It was fine the way it was.
Q. Can you talk about the experience, I assume you’ve never had that long of a makeup session in your life.
MATT KENSETH: It was fun. Clint and I were teasing each other. Since I’m the one that gets to talk, it took 45 minutes to get him to look like that, it took six hours to make me look that old (laughter).
It was fun. The people who did it are actually the same people that did, what’s his name, Johnny Knoxville, that Bad Grandpa’s movie, they did all the stuff. They talked a little bit about that, some of the experiences getting people ready for movies and things like that.
It was an interesting, fun experience.
Q. I wanted to ask you about coming off the first race of the Chase as a top seed. What pressures did you carry into that race having to maintain that standing? Now coming out of Chicago into New Hampshire, where you haven’t had much success, is this a track you’re just going to have to survive?
MATT KENSETH: I don’t really look at it at just surviving any track. I think you take it one week at a time, bring your A game every week, bring your best equipment, go out with the idea of trying to win. I think that’s what everybody does. Obviously only one team gets to do that every week.
Everybody has different strategies. I’m not a big believer in a Mulligan or you just got to get through this week. I don’t want to just get through any week. I want to be competitive, run up front, hopefully lead some laps and put yourself in position to win races.
I know that’s what our approach is, what our goal is. Just keep taking it one week at a time and see how it goes.
Q. We saw all that happened the first week with NASCAR’s rulings, manipulation of the outcome of the race by some teams, the impact that had on the sport, people calling into integrity the outcome of some races. As a driver when you’re subjected to something like that, in terms of guys having to be in that awkward position of having to follow a team order when it is to their detriment, what kind of lingering impact does that have on the sport? Are you confident what has taken place with NASCAR stepping in removes any doubt about that going forward?
MATT KENSETH: Well, I mean, a couple things. All I can really do is comment on myself, things that I’ve been directly involved in or things directly related to me.
I can honestly sit here and say I’ve never had a team order to do anything, nor have I done anything like that.
My approach to racing has always been the same. Certainly I always have felt like – and I’ve always said this, I’ve been a part of multi-car teams, have had a lot of teammates through the years – when they drop the green on Sunday, it’s 1 against 42.
You always try to help your teammate, you never try to put a teammate in a bad spot, try not to get in conflicts with them, do things like that. Like I said, if you can do it without hurting your own finishing position, can give them a little extra room, those are things you try to do.
I think being teammates is Monday through Saturday night, sharing information, working together, trying to get all three cars running up front. I think our goal as a race team and as teammates is to try to figure out how to get our cars to run one through three.
When it comes to the race on Sunday, you’re going to race as hard as you can to beat your teammates as well as the rest of the field.
Q. Your win at Daytona was largely due to Kurt Busch who gave you a big push. Is that where you see that manifest itself, the teamwork?
MATT KENSETH: Well, I think restrictor plate racing is totally different than anything else we do all year. There’s four restrictor plate races all year. Obviously you try to draft with teammates.
I’ve been in plate races before where I’ve been wanting to work with a teammate because he’s a teammate, but our cars are slow together. You get together with somebody else, both cars are faster together. You stick with the guy with the fastest car.
You always try to figure out what you can do to get the best possible finish you can. When you’re at a plate race, something like that, you have a choice, it’s A or B, A is not your teammate, B is, you’re going to pick your teammate. You’re always going to do favors for buddies or teammates maybe more so than anybody else.
Q. Given how the outcome of this race ended, with Kyle finishing second, do you view your own teammate as one of the biggest threats out there for the Chase?
MATT KENSETH: I really honestly think the other 11 or 12 guys now all still have a shot. It’s only one race in. Nine races is just a ton of racing. I know everybody is going to talk about it for the next nine weeks. When you get a few weeks down the road, things will change. There are usually some cars that will basically be eliminated unless something really strange happens. They’ll get behind. That’s what has happened every year so far.
I think it’s too early to really pick favorites. I think there’s a ton of competition. When you look at the finishing position last Sunday, 10 of the top 12 were all drivers in the Chase.
You’re going to have to run really good every week to be able to beat that because they’re in the Chase for a reason: because they’ve been the best-running cars all year. You’re going to try to figure out how to beat all of them and they’re all going to be really tough.
Q. Matt, obviously you were the last guy in 2003 to win the NASCAR Winston Cup championship. As you know, there was a lot of noise about, He was very consistent but only won one race. Is that something in your mind, that you would like to win a Sprint Cup championship as well, maybe put some of that other conversation to rest?
MATT KENSETH: Well, I mean, your goal, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have won a championship, your goal every year after that is to try to win a championship. If you come up short of that, I think it’s always somewhat disappointing, a little disappointing. That’s always your goal no matter what the format is.
The format, we all know what it is before the year starts. It’s the same for everybody. The rules don’t change as you go along. Sure, we’d love to win it in the new format.
As far as the last one we won, it was a really long time. Time goes by really quick. There’s certainly no apologies for the way we won that championship. We had an unbelievable season that year. We didn’t have the fastest cars, led the most laps, but we were consistently in the top five and had really, really good finishes, really good teamwork that whole entire year.
The other thing is I’ve never been in a race before that I haven’t wanted to win. If we could have won more races that year, been quicker, had circumstances go our way, we would have loved that to happen. It wasn’t like we weren’t trying to win more races. We had an incredible year that year, like I said. Didn’t have the wins, but had a lot of good finishes.
Q. Matt, talking about how you look at your racing. NASCAR drivers are great at adjusting to a lot of variables even when a lot goes wrong. Do you have anything to adjust to when a lot goes right, which definitely happened to you in 2013?
MATT KENSETH: You know, I think the older I get, the longer you’ve been around, as least for me, I’ve learned to enjoy wins more, especially after you’ve gone on a losing streak. We had two seasons without a win one time. When you struggle some, have some things go on like that, you certainly learn to appreciate and enjoy the wins more.
One thing in this sport that’s very humbling, things change in a very big hurry. I always feel like everybody’s personality is different. But for me it’s important to stay somewhere in the middle, never get too low when things are going bad, never get too high when things are going great.
On either side of that, it’s kind of hard. You don’t want to dwell on what’s going bad, but it’s hard not to when you go through a big disappointment. You don’t want to get so not excited about the win, because you want to be excited, enjoy your successes, but you also have to stay down there a little bit and start thinking about the next race, what you’re really trying to accomplish. You don’t want to take focus off the future, what you have going on this week, next week, the week after that, trying to prepare for those next races because you’re still enjoying the one that happened a couple days ago.
That is the tough part. It moves really fast. Our season is really long. You have to stay focused every week, try to put up the numbers every week and perform because all those cars you’re trying to race for a championship are so incredibly good that if you let your guard down a little bit or if you’re off for one week, they’re going to eat you up in a hurry.
– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR