This weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Kentucky Speedway in Sparta for Saturday night’s running of the Quaker State 400. It’ll be the 17th race of the 2014 season and with will mark the start of the 10-race Race to the Chase, the 10 final races before the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup Series championship postseason.
Despite winning more races than anyone last year and being the 2013 Sprint Cup Series runner-up to Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth currently finds himself among the ranks of drivers still in search of their first win of 2014, heading into Kentucky.
Kenseth heads into Kentucky as the reigning winner of the Quaker State 400 and he has three top-10 finishes in three races there, so he’s hoping the Bluegrass State is where he’ll finally get himself into victory lane. On Tuesday, Kenseth participated in a NASCAR teleconference to preview the Kentucky race weekend and talk about his season so far. Here’s what he had to say:
Q. Matt, with your solid performance at Kentucky and as the defending race winner, do you feel Saturday night is your best opportunity to date to win your way into the Chase for the Sprint Cup?
MATT KENSETH: I don’t know if I would say our best opportunity. I’m not even sure how many races we’ve run this year, 15 or 16, but I feel like the way we ran last year, any one of those races with the exception of maybe last weekend would have been a good chance for us to get up there and get a win.
You know, we’ll see what happens. It was a good track for us last year for sure, so you know, hopefully we’ll get there this weekend and have some speed and hopefully be a factor.
Q. Kentucky has made a big deal out of being — I guess they’re calling themselves the roughest track and they’re putting it in commercials about how rough they are, trying to make their own unique brand, I guess, and differentiate themselves from the other mile-and-a-half tracks. But at the same time it seems like some people are saying it’s too rough. Where is the line, because you hear a lot of people say that it’s good that tracks get worn out and that makes for better racing. Where is the line between a track getting worn out and being too rough?
MATT KENSETH: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s kind of two different things. I think the tracks being wore out, the pavement losing grip so you can slide around more and tires drop off more and new tires are a big reward, that’s the kind of stuff I think we all like as drivers or I think a lot of us are under the opinion that makes better racing, more passing, that type of thing.
Just being bumpy doesn’t necessarily do that, but they definitely are not lying. It’s definitely the roughest track in NASCAR. It’s really, really bumpy, but I think there’s a couple lanes there you can pass. It is a unique mile-and-a-half. The Turn 4 exit is different than any other mile-and-a-half we go to. You know, it’s definitely rough and it’s definitely unique.
Q. I was wondering how you were feeling the day after your Sonoma crash.
MATT KENSETH: Well, I feel physically fine. So yeah, when I got spun out there, it wasn’t funny, but I was looking to the side and I was kind of sliding off and I didn’t feel like I was going very fast and I’m like, what’s over there, I’m kind of looking, I guess I’m just going to slide off the track. Oh, there’s a tire barrier, I hope I don’t hit that very hard, and it kind of grabbed a hold of the car and whipped it around. I’m sure there’s a lot of cases where tire barriers are better. Unfortunately I don’t think that was one of them. I think if I would have hit a cement wall it would have been a lot less damage and actually would have got the car fixed and been able to finish the race. It just grabbed a hold of it and just destroyed that car. It ripped the front frames horns right off of it. It was definitely a surprise.
Q. It looked like a pretty vicious crash on television. Were you sore the next day?
MATT KENSETH: I wasn’t. I felt good. These guys over here at JGR do a really nice job with the cars and the seats and the safety stuff, and NASCAR has done a great job, as well, over the last half-a-dozen or dozen years in terms of getting the tracks and the cars and all that safer. I felt good.
Q. Last thing on that, I know you and Junior have been friends for a long time, but did you hear anything from him afterwards? Was there any follow-up?
MATT KENSETH: I have not heard from him actually, which I probably thought I would have. I mean, I’m sure it was just a mistake. I mean, part of the thing is the way the racing is today, it’s much more entertaining to watch, especially road courses. You’re running side by side with those two-wide restarts, and you run two wide at a track that’s really made to run single file, it’s very small and a lot of marbles, and there’s really only one good lane through there. But on restarts you have to run side by side because that’s really your only opportunity to pass after four or five laps and then it singles out. There’s very little passing. Everybody fights as hard as they can for the spot for the restart and I kind of rolled outside of him there because everyone was going slow and we were kind of running through there and I had him most of the way clear, and I haven’t really totally seen it. I assume he probably just jumped a curb or something and got me in the right rear.
Q. I remember way back when Kentucky didn’t have any races and it was a great test track for a lot of people in NASCAR, and I think you were one of the original drivers on the track. What are some of the factors that has made this track a big hit with the fans, and it seems like the drivers like it, too?
MATT KENSETH: Yeah, I mean, I’m probably one of the guys with the least amount of experience at Kentucky. We never really tested there a lot. I’ve never ran a Nationwide race there. I’m running my first Nationwide race with our Reser’s car Friday night, so I’m looking forward to that. But the fans I think in that area or the area where the track is, they’ve always been real passionate and real supportive of it. I remember watching Nationwide races on TV there and just seeing a packed house. I think the drivers like it because it’s unique, it’s a different track than the same old one you’ve been going to forever. It was something new, something different, a different part of the country, so I think everybody looked forward to that, as well.
Q. Matt, Kentucky is kind of the last mile-and-a-half until Atlanta, but there are some other kind of downforce intermediate type tracks between now and then. What can you learn from Kentucky that can be applied to other tracks between now and Atlanta, or can any?
MATT KENSETH: Yeah, I mean, I think every track is unique. Some are more unique than others. Kentucky is certainly very unique with how rough it is. There’s not a track that’s really at all like that on the circuit. That being said, I think there’s a lot of things in general that you can learn. I mean, if you look, most seasons are like this, but you look at the guys that are running really, really good right now, they’re really good every week. I think if you can get caught up or you can learn some things or get your cars faster at any track, you feel like there’s hopefully a thing that you can apply, some general basic things that can work everywhere, and you can start moving forward in that direction because it seems like the guys who are running good, like I said, are running good every week. Hopefully we can start improving.
Q. And on a different topic, Carl Edwards got his second win of the year. He’ll be in the Chase, and it looks like you’ll probably be in the Chase considering where you are in points. In your last year at Roush you and Jimmy Fennig were able to combine for a couple of wins during the Chase. If you get in the Chase, do you think — and if Carl ends up leaving, do you think Carl and Jimmy Fennig could work together well enough to be a factor at all in the Chase?
MATT KENSETH: Well, I mean, I don’t really know what Carl’s future plans are. It would be probably something to ask him. But I will say that that’s a great race team. Jimmy Fennig is a really great friend of mine and a really great crew chief. He has been for, I don’t know, the last 35 years or something. It’s been a long time. Maybe not quite that long, but it’s been a long time. Certainly when I was there my last year, there was certainly not a reason to give up. There was just incentive to keep going and trying to get better each and every week. I think no matter what the plans are going forward, they’re going to be focused on trying to win races and trying to race for a championship.
Q. I had a question about Indianapolis. There’s been a lot of discussion, pros and cons, about installing the apron, and I think it’s a question of now of when it happens as opposed to if it happens. It’s not going to happen for next month’s race, but have you felt like having that extra six, eight feet of asphalt would be important to the stock car race?
MATT KENSETH: Well, I have to admit, I mean, I know what you’re saying, but I haven’t read anything in the news and don’t really know anything about it or what their plans are or what exactly they’re trying to do. I think the way it’s laid out, you can get the left front down on that flat a little bit, you can stay above and be up on the banking if you are loose and you need to tighten your car up a little bit. I don’t know that paving more underneath that would really change the racing at all if it’s flat if there’s no banking to it. I don’t think it would make any difference to be honest with you. So there’s a lot of — which I understand why they do it, but there’s a lot of talk about that extra pavement at Pocono, and the only thing that was really good for was if you blew up or something you could get off the track and coast around. There’s no way you could race on it. I’m not sure that adding any pavement to the inside of the corners if it was flat would make much difference.
Q. I think my main questions have been answered, but I’ll get back to the fact of talking about getting your first win here this year. You’re probably going to make it with points at least, but is there any extra urgency coming here with not having won yet?
MATT KENSETH: Well, I mean, yes and no. I think the biggest sense of urgency probably is that we just know as an organization we need to be running better. We’re not running as good as we did last year as a group. We’re not leading as many laps, sitting on as many poles, winning as many races. As a group we’re not doing near as much of that or running up front as much as we were last year. So we need to get that better. As far as the urgency to get a win, yeah, you want to get one. In this new format you really need at least a win and be up in the top 30 to really feel confident about being in the Chase. Anything can happen with different winners, so you’re never sure. But if we could win every week, we would. So just to have a sense of urgency about it, it doesn’t really do any good. We’re already working as hard as we can and we’re calling the races the way we need to call them to get ourselves in the best position. Pit stops have been great. I feel like we’re doing everything we can do to do that, we’ve just going to keep trying to get our cars faster, keep trying to get in position to win more, and if you can put yourself in that spot enough times, sooner or later you’ll get one.
Q. Just a quick question about the Brickyard 400. Looking back at the win column there, Chevrolet has won all those races since 2003, and I think a total of about 15. As a Toyota driver, what can Toyota do to break that streak that Chevrolet has held at the Brickyard for so long?
MATT KENSETH: Well, I mean, I think that that’s probably laid on the teams more so than laid on Toyota, so Toyota and TRD does a great job of giving us the things we need, the tools we need to go out and win races and try to race for championships. It’s just up to us to get that together, to get a setup. We need to go there and run and hopefully put one of our cars in position to win that thing.
Q. Have you had a chance to test there at all recently or no?
MATT KENSETH: There was a tire test there last week, and Kyle was there for JGR.
Q. You mentioned earlier the emphasis on winning in the new points system. From a driver’s perspective do you see a change in the way people conduct themselves on the track? Is there more aggression late in races? Is it more all out? And do you like the system?
MATT KENSETH: Well, to answer your first question, my answer is usually not the popular one, but I really don’t. I mean, it’s so competitive at this level and it’s just a huge deal to win a Sprint Cup Series race, it always has been in my mind. This is the top division of stock car racing in the world, and you want to win every race, whether it pays a dollar or a million dollars or whether it pays one point or locks you into the Chase, or whatever it does, there’s always been the most incentive to win. There’s always been the most points, the trophy, the most money. I mean, all that stuff has always been there. It’s always been there. So I think it rewards the winners differently, but I really don’t feel like it changes how you race. If you’re in a spot to try to win one of these races at the end, it’s always been you’re going to do whatever you can to get that win. Certainly the reward is greater than what it used to be the way they’re going to seed the cars and all that stuff, but I think that everybody has always raced as hard as they can if they’ve got a shot at the end of the race.
Q. When you look at drivers who run into rough stretches throughout the year, what goes into that? Is it a lack of focus? Is it bad luck catching up to them? And what do you get worried about it versus trusting that the results will come around?
MATT KENSETH: I hope it’s not lack of focus. You know, you just keep working on it the same. I think one of the keys to the sport I’ve always felt like is to try to control the peaks and valleys the best you can. When things are going great, try not to be too high and when things are going bad, try not to be too low. You’ve got to keep it somewhere in the center. Things in general are usually not as great as they seem when they are going great and they are not as bad as they seem when you are struggling a little bit. So I think you’ve just got to keep that focus, keep working on it, keep trying to figure out how you can get better, how you can do a better job at doing your part, how you can help your team more. I think everybody just has to keep working on it, and you know, it’ll turn around sooner than later. Everybody always hopes for instant success, and you always hope it turns around on the sooner side. The fact is you’ve got to keep working on it and give it 100 percent, and it’ll come back around.
Q. Will tire wear be an issue this weekend at Kentucky Speedway?
MATT KENSETH: I have no idea. That’s probably not a very good answer, but I really don’t. I really don’t have any idea. We do spend some time on the track tomorrow in a Nationwide car, having that open test day on Wednesday. So probably will have a better idea by tomorrow night, but last year’s tires were good. I think they changed the left-side tire for this year, so I don’t know whether that’s going to be a factor or not.
Q. What is your biggest concern going into Kentucky Speedway this weekend?
MATT KENSETH: Biggest concern? Man, the first one is probably qualifying. We haven’t qualified particularly well lately, and I feel like that really hurts us in the race. I feel like we start at a deficit. We don’t really get the pit stall we want to get. We’re working on traffic a lot before we can start adjusting our car. So I think we need to qualify better, so that’s probably the first thing on my mind is to get qualified on Friday. I guess it’s kind of a backwards schedule. We’ve got to get the race setup right but then you’ve got to get qualified. So hopefully we can get something that drives good in race trim and have some speed and get qualified.
Q. Matt, you were talking about speed, you were talking about qualifying. Where do you think the TRD horsepower stacks up against Hendrick Motorsports? Where do you think that TRD is right now compared to the Hendrick power plants?
MATT KENSETH: Well, I don’t know. I’ve never drove a Hendrick car, so it’s hard for me to compare. I mean, I think TRD has done a really great job of making good power, and then last year once we got to about the middle of the year they really worked hard on durability because we had a few durability issues early in the year. We were making great power but we weren’t making it to the end every week. I think they’ve done a good job of trying to balance that. Obviously if you’re not running on the last lap you can’t win, so I think they’ve done a good job of getting the durability better, on average, from where we were and still trying to develop more power at the same time.
Q. You’re fourth in points but just have five top 5s, and the Toyotas as a whole are not leading as many laps as they had been a year ago. Do you feel like you’re struggling and are you guys kind of scratching your head on where you need to work on next, or do you have kind of a good idea and a good path as to what you need to do to kind of run a little better?
MATT KENSETH: Well, I do think that they always have a good path over here at JGR of figuring out what the next thing is, how we’re going to make it better, how we’re going to improve, whether we’re running spectacular or whether we want to be running better. I think it’s just something that you’re always working on. Sometimes things change differently than maybe you think they would have. I think that with the rules changes, the aero changes and the rule changes and everything, to go into the season we just haven’t got a hold of it as fast as we did last year. Last year we just came out of the box and we were really strong right away, where this year we’ve still been searching honestly just to get right where we need to be. So I felt like up until we got to Pocono, I felt like we were making some gains, we were running better, we put ourselves in position to win the 600, and I wasn’t able to hold onto it. We just missed it a little bit there at the end, had ourselves up front at Dover, we didn’t have a winning car but we had a top three or four car and I think we finished third or fourth, something like that. So I felt like we were making some gains. Had a tough Pocono, Michigan and Sonoma here, but hopefully can go back to Kentucky and get back on track and hopefully continue those gains and be up there at the end.
Q. Is it just a matter of kind of landing on something? Is it a matter of, hey, it could be this week or it could be three months before you kind of feel like you’re kind of on par with maybe the front runners on a more consistent basis?
MATT KENSETH: Well, I’m not exactly sure. I mean, I think if you knew — if you thought, okay, I’m two tenths off and I know this is the problem or this is what’s holding us back by two tenths and then you make a plan for that piece and you’d have a timeline for when it’s going to be done, but the fact is you don’t know exactly what you need, you just keep working on trying to make everything better, and keep trying different setups, keep trying to make your cars better, keep trying to make your engines better, just keep trying to make everything better and you’ll hit it hopefully sooner than later. Really you don’t know. Every weekend when you get to the track, you get out there in the first practice you kind of get your balance so you have kind of some idea where you’re stacking up against everybody else. It’s not like — if you knew exactly what you had to fix, you would just fix it, and it would be easier to put a timeline on it. But when you don’t, you just keep trying to work on everything, and if you can find something like I said that you know is, quote-unquote, wrong, you’d just go about fixing it. But also I think you just keep working on it, keep trying to make your cars better, keep working on your setup stuff and hopefully keep gaining on them.
Q. I have to ask you about the report yesterday that says Home Depot is kind of in flux going into next year. Is that a concern from a driver’s perspective?
MATT KENSETH: You know, it’s not something I’m concerned about, but I really don’t know much about it, either. The thing that I do know is they’ve been a great partner at Joe Gibbs Racing for a lot, a lot of years, and NASCAR, as well. I’m really not sure what their future plans are. We’re focused on really trying to get our cars running a little bit better right now, hopefully get up there and get a win and get in the Chase.
Q. You talked about how tough the Kentucky track is and how it needs paving. What about a track like Michigan with the new paving, the speed? So many of the fans have asked me over and over, how the heck did the drivers get themselves adjusted for these different track surfaces?
MATT KENSETH: I definitely never said it needed paving. It’s a tough track and it’s very rough and it’s very bumpy. I don’t know where the line is for what’s too rough and what’s too bumpy. But however, I do know, unless somebody changes the asphalt and makes an aggregate they use and all that stuff, that paving a track does not make for instant good racing. It takes typically years and years before it gets back to being what I would consider real good.
Kansas got pretty wide and I think it’s only the second or third race on it. It was a fast race so there’s some hope there and Michigan is starting to widen out a hair, so I think another couple races there that’s going to be a little better, too. It’s just that the new blacktop is so good, it takes a long time to come in and get widened out. So certainly there’s an adjustment from going to an older, more weathered surface than a new surface just because Goodyear has got to bring a really hard tire and the match-up of the pavement. There’s a lot of challenges with new pavement for sure. I would never be the guy to raise my hand and ask somebody to pave a track.