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.