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.

Brad Keselowski Racing announces crew chief assignments

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Brad Keselowski Racing has announced the crew chiefs that will be paired with both of its full-time rookie drivers this season in the Camping World Truck Series.

Austin Cindric, driving the No. 19 Draw-Tite Ford, will work with Doug Randolph. Randolph has been a crew chief for BKR since 2012 and has six wins, including three with Tyler Reddick in the last two seasons. Randolph also has four Xfinity Series wins.

Mike Hillman Jr. will be the crew chief for Chase Briscoe in the No. 29 Cooper Standard Ford. Hillman is a two-time Truck series champion as crew chief for Todd Bodine (2006, 2010). He has 20 Truck Series wins, the last coming in 2013 with Jeb Burton.

“Austin Cindric has already had success in various forms of racing, and has shown a lot of potential in our Ford F-150 race trucks,” said Keselowski in a press release. “I certainly believe that Chase is ready to take the next step in his career, and we’re excited to have him join the BKR family. He won the ARCA championship in his first full-time season, and he’s proven to have the ability to learn quickly and win races. We’re pleased to give both Austin and Chase the opportunity to compete full-time at a high level in NASCAR.”

Briscoe, 22, enters his rookie season after winning the ARCA Racing Series title behind six race wins.

“It’s an absolutely huge opportunity and such an honor to drive for Brad,” said Briscoe in a press release. “The competition level in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series is so high, but I’m going to be in the best equipment out there. It’s really cool to once again be working with the Keselowski family. When I moved to North Carolina three years ago, I was helping Brian and Bob in their shop, so things have come full circle. I’m truly blessed with this opportunity, and I hope to make the most of it. At the end of the day, it’s all about winning races and championships, and that’s what I plan to do.”

Cindric, 18, is the son of Team Penske president Tim Cindric. He has six starts with BKR over the last two seasons. His best result is 15th last November at Phoenix International Raceway.

“This is a massive opportunity from Brad and everyone at BKR who trusts me and believes in my abilities as a driver to move on to the next level for a full season,” said Cindric in a press release. “2017 gets more and more exciting for me with every day that goes by. I’ve only done a handful of one-off races in my brief stock car career, so I’m really looking forward to having the same guys by my side week in and week out. I’ve spent a lot of time at the shop the last few weeks and I know everyone is really excited to get back racing.”

The Truck Series season begins Feb. 24 at Daytona International Speedway.

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Kurt, Kyle Busch come up short in Nations Cup finale at Race of Champions

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 04:  NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kyle Busch hugs brother Kurt Busch during the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards show at Wynn Las Vegas on December 4, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
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After early exits in the first day of the Race of Champion exhibition Saturday in Miami, Kyle and Kurt Busch returned on Sunday in hopes of winning the Nations Cup for the United States of America, but were swept in the finale by Germany’s Sebastian Vettel.

The brothers, representing Team USA NASCAR, were in Group A with USA IndyCar, USA Rally and ROC Factor Canada.

Kurt Busch’s struggles from Saturday continued in his first race against IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe. The Canadian driver beat Kurt Busch by .002 of a second. The NASCAR representative would bounce back in his next race, beating action sports star and former NASCAR driver Travis Pastrana.

In Kyle Busch‘s first race of the day, he faced and beat karting champion Stefan Rzadzinski of Canada. He followed it up by beating Scott Speed.

After six races, Team USA NASCAR and IndyCar had four wins each and faced each other in the semifinal round. But the Busch brothers prevailed over Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi from USA IndyCar to advance to the Nations Cup final against Vettel, who represented Germany by himself.

But Vettel swept the race, betting Kurt then Kyle Busch to claim the Nations Cup. Vettel swept all of his races, finishing Sunday with seven wins.

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NMPA names Jimmie Johnson Driver of the Year among annual awards

HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 18:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 18, 2016 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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Jimmie Johnson was named the Richard Petty Driver of the Year on Saturday by the National Motorsports Press Association as part of its annual awards banquet.

It’s the seventh time that Johnson – who was named on 62 percent of the ballots cast – has been recognized with the award. He previously won it in 2004, ’06, ’07, ’09, ’10, and ’13.

The award comes after Johnson became the third driver to win a seventh championship in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

The NMPA also named Al Pearce of Autoweek as its annual Pocono Spirit Award winner.

The award, sponsored by Pocono Raceway, “recognizes character and achievement in the face of adversity,
sportsmanship and contributions to motorsports.”

Pearce won for a four-year project that raised $13,000 through the auction of a racing helmet signed by the 20 living World Driving Champions and Phil Hill and Sir Jack Brabham prior their passing. Proceeds from the project went to the Victory Junction Gang Camp, the Kyle Petty Charity Ride, the Jimmie Johnson Foundation and the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation.

Dave Ferroni, the public relations representative for Furniture Row Racing,  was awarded the Ken Patterson Helping Others Award.

Involved in auto racing for more than 30 years, Ferroni was the publicist for the “Miracle on Ice” U.S. hockey team in 1980 before later serving working for Brainerd International Raceway and the National Hot Rod Association. His company, DMF Communications, has also worked with U.S. Army, Miller Brewing Co., Pennzoil, McDonald’s and Valvoline.

The Ken Patterson award is sponsored by Talladega Superspeedway, where Patterson served as the public relations director, and has been given out since 2004. The track will donate $1,000 in Ferroni’s name to the Kenneth Patterson Educational Trust Fund.

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NBCSN to broadcast NASCAR announcement at 6 p.m. ET Monday

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NBCSN will air live a press conference held by NASCAR industry stakeholders to discuss the upcoming 2017 season at 6 p.m. ET Monday.

The announcement will be attended by NASCAR executives, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers, NASCAR team representatives and NASCAR track representatives.

The press conference is being held at the Charlotte Convention Center.