How another major victory slipped away from Matt Kenseth on a split-second decision

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Matt Kenseth leaned against his crumpled No. 20 Toyota and gracefully answered every question after quite possibly the greatest letdown of his NASCAR career.

With two laps remaining at Phoenix International Raceway, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was a lock to win the Can-Am 500 and advance to

Fifteen minutes later, he was standing in the pits as Joey Logano roared by on a smoky burnout to victory lane.

How was Kenseth handling the feelings of disappointment so well?

“Is there anything I can do or say right now to make it better?” he asked. “The only thing I can do or say right now is make things worse, so really I’m just trying not to do that.”

It also might have helped that he had some recent experience with processing those painful emotions. Kenseth’s 2016 season will be remembered as being bookended by two enormous split-second decisions that immediately were ripe for second-guessing.

In the Daytona 500, it was a last-lap move to throw a block while leading, handing the win to teammate Denny Hamlin and raising questions about whether the absence of normal spotter Chris Osborne feeding him good information cost him a third win in the sport’s crown jewel.

Osborne, recovered from injuries in a car accident, was atop the spotter’s stand Sunday, but he was taking the blame for Kenseth’s 21st-place finish after a crash on the first restart of overtime.

Kenseth was in the lead and on the outside of Alex Bowman at the green flag. Bowman got bumped by Kyle Busch, but he recovered to hold the bottom line entering the first corner – where he drove into the left side of Kenseth’s car.

Kenseth had swooped from the bottom believing he was clear on the advice of Osborne.

“(Bowman) laid back, but I thought I got an OK restart, and (Osborne) said I was clear, so after he said I was clear, I started just looking at the corner,” Kenseth said. “I didn’t know any different until I was in the wall. So I don’t know if he just drove in and hit me or if I wasn’t quite clear. I really don’t know what happened there.”

Neither did Bowman, who apologized to Kenseth and his fans but also said both drivers on the front row had spun their tires.

“You just don’t want to wreck somebody and take them out of the Chase like that,” said the interim driver, who led a race-high 194 laps in the No. 88 Chevrolet place of Dale Earnhardt Jr. “I tried to get a little low and (Busch) just turned me sideways. I was up against the inside wall and I think (Kenseth) just thought he was clear. We didn’t get a terrible restart. It wasn’t the best. But we were going forward until (Busch) hit us.

“I had a couple of people already say that (Osborne) said (Kenseth) was clear. There is not really anything I can do when the spotter clears you, and I’m inside of you. I hate that it happened. It’s very disappointing. I never would intentionally do that. … I don’t think many people will be that hung up on it. If people were going to be that hung u, he’d be down here screaming at me now.”

It seemed Busch felt worst about the incident, taking the blame for the contact with Bowman. Busch, who advanced to defend his title in the final spot on points, was trying to force Bowman up the track in hopes of also blocking Logano.

“Right now it feels pretty (crappy), but tomorrow it might feel a lot better,” he said. “It depends on what Matt’s interpretation is and whether or not he can forgive.  I just feel really bad about what happened.  It just wasn’t what I anticipated, and I just feel bad.”

Of course, there also was a question of whether Kenseth needed to be in the bottom lane. Though it had been his preferred line throughout the race, he said “it didn’t matter that much.

“I was fine if I had to run through the middle,” he said. “I felt like our car was pretty good. I felt like I could have got off the top just fine.”

But taking the bottom line offered an edge that might have carried Kenseth to the victory because “that gets the guys behind you in a worse aero situation. So I got it turned down to the white line. (Osborne) hollered ‘inside’ at the same time I got turned backward and was headed toward the fence. So I really don’t know what happened. I was just going off the information I had to try to make the best corner I could.”

“It’s a team effort. Win as a team, lose as a team. I can’t blame (Osborne). I didn’t see what happened. He said I was clear, so I started looking toward the corner and got turned around. So many things happen in a hurry.”

It’s been a long wait for another title opportunity for the Cambridge, Wis., native, who won the championship in 2003 – the last season before the Chase. Though he has finished runner-up twice, Kenseth, 44, hasn’t advanced to the championship round since the playoffs were revamped in 2014, and the window is closing on his career.

“Disappointed would be to put it lightly,” he said. “It probably hurts more in a way if you’re one year away from your last championship instead of 13 years away from your last championship. I think it’s harder to take 13 years away.

“You don’t know how many more chances you’re going to have.”

It could be the epitaph for his season.

NASCAR America: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. talks Phoenix finish, racing roots

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. joins NASCAR America to go over his fourth-place finish at Phoenix Raceway.

The Roush Fenway Racing driver also shares his racing origins in Mississippi and the hobbies he and girlfriend Danica Patrick share with each other.

Stenhouse is in his fifth full-time year competing in the NASCAR Cup Series with Roush Fenway Racing.

NASCAR America: 50 States in 50 Shows: Alaska

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NASCAR America continues its journey through the United States with the second chapter in “50 States in 50 Shows.”

Following South Alabama Speedway, the show features Capitol Speedway and Alaska Raceway Park in Alaska.

Owned by Nancy and Wes Wallace, Capitol Speedway is a 3/8th-mile oval and features sprint car racing and demolition derbies.

 

Kevin Harvick crew chief fined, suspended one race for encumbered finish

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Kevin Harvick‘s crew chief, Rodney Childers, has been suspended for one NASCAR Cup Series race and fined $25,000 for an unapproved track bar slider assembly last weekend at Phoenix Raceway.

The penalty, a L1 infraction, results in an encumbered finish. Harvick placed sixth in the Camping World 500.

The No. 4 team has also been docked 10 driver and owner points. Harvick was seventh in the standings after four races. He trailed leader Kyle Larson by 61 points. The loss of points drops Harvick one spot to eighth behind Jamie McMurray.

Harvick has not won a race yet, which would qualify him for the playoffs.

MORE: Brad Keselowski closes crew chief for three races, team docked 35 driver points

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NASCAR docks Brad Keselowski, Team Penske 35 points; suspends crew chief Paul Wolfe

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NASCAR docked Brad Keselowski 35 points, suspended crew chief Paul Wolfe three races and fined Wolfe $65,000 because Keselowski’s car failed inspection after finishing fifth in last weekend’s race at Phoenix Raceway.

NASCAR also docked the team 35 owner points for the L1 infraction. NASCAR stated that Keselowski’s result is an encumbered finish.

NASCAR cited Keselowski’s car for failing weights and measurements on the laser platform. NASCAR stated in Wednesday’s penalty report that the team failed the rear wheel steer on the Laser Inspection Station. 

MORE: NASCAR suspends crew chief Rodney Childers one race

Team Penske issued a statement Wednesday:

“We have acknowledged the penalties levied against the No. 2 team following last weekend’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway.  The race cars returned to the race shop today and we are in the process of evaluating the area in question. In the meantime, we have decided Brian Wilson will serve as Brad Keselowski’s crew chief at Auto Club Speedway while we evaluate our approach relative to today’s penalties.”

The penalty drops Keselowski from second in the standings to fourth heading into this weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway.

The more significant issue is how this could impact Keselowski, who already has a win, in the playoffs.

The top 10 in points before the playoffs begin earn additional points. The points leader earns 15 playoff points. The driver second in the standings earns 10 playoff points, the driver third in the standings earns eight playoff points, the driver fourth in the standings earns seven playoff points. It goes down to the driver 10th in the standings earning one playoff point.

Those playoff points carry through the first three rounds, which is different from last year. Falling behind in the regular season – or losing points because of a penalty – could have ramifications in the playoffs. 

“I think it’s real important to explain why points matter this year,” Keselowski said on Fox Sports 1’s “Race Hub” on Wednesday night. “Last year, you got a win and you locked in and you got to the next round. This year with points, you still lock in with wins. The difference is there’s a huge points bonus for having the most points at the end of the season that carries all the way through the playoffs, and you only get that bonus if you’re one of the best cars and leading up front at the end of the regular season, which requires having a lot of points. Thirty-five points is a pretty big deal, and so is 10 points for Kevin (Harvick) and his team.”

 

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