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.

Martin Truex Jr.: VHT ‘a huge factor’ in Coca-Cola 600 — but wouldn’t work as well elsewhere

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CONCORD, N.C. — Though the rain paid a visit to the Coca-Cola 600, the traction agent applied high in the corners of Charlotte Motor Speedway was a “huge factor” in NASCAR’s longest race, according to Martin Truex Jr.

Truex, who led a race high 233 laps, lauded the VHT chemical used to improve racing at the 1.5-mile track after a dud of an All-Star Race.

“I think last weekend the middle groove, middle to high middle, was nonexistent,” Truex said after finishing third early Monday morning. “It was the slickest part of the racetrack.”

But that changed Sunday. Following Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, NASCAR and the track reapplied refresh coats of VHT to the upper grooves in the turns after consulting drivers and crew chiefs. Even after a downpour swept over the track on Lap 143, Truex said the traction compound was a factor for 375 of the race’s 400 laps.

“It was the main groove,” Truex said of the higher grooves. “Where typically there is the least grip (there) on this racetrack, it was the most tonight. It definitely played a factor. It changed the race quite a bit. I think the downforce rules this year changed it quite a bit as well. The bottom of the racetrack is so bumpy and so slick, I’m telling you after 10 laps it’s all you can do to make laps without crashing down there.

“It definitely changed the race tonight. It made it a lot of fun. I thought it was a good addition.”

Winner Austin Dillon thought the VHT – also known as PJ1 TrackBite – benefited the race. But the Richard Childress Racing drive would like to see a change in where the agent is applied to the track surface.

“The middle groove had a lot of speed, took away from the bottom,” Dillon said. That’s usually dominant here. The bottom got good again. After the rain, the bottom was pretty dominant. As the race went on, I could actually see the VHT leaving the track. It was getting clean higher and higher.

“We’ve got something there as far as trying it. It’s not a bad thing. I really think we should try it more often. I think the next thing you look into is the placement of it. I feel like we needed more on the very top because the middle was really dominant, but you couldn’t really get into the top of it like you needed to. That would be my next shot at it. It’s not a bad thing at all. I like it.”

What’s next?

The chemical has been used on the concrete high banks of Bristol Motor Speedway and the asphalt of Charlotte and been mostly praised.

Should it be tried at any other tracks on the NASCAR circuit?

“I don’t think so,” Truex said. “I think this track is so unique, the pavement here, the geometry of the racetrack, the bumps that are in it. It’s almost got a concrete feel the way the bumps are. They’re really, really small, high‑frequency bumps, almost like a washboard, kind of the feeling you get at Dover (International Speedway). Most asphalt tracks are not bumpy that way. They’re more of a swell. The car kind of goes through swells, a place like (Chicagoland Speedway) or Atlanta (Motor Speedway).

“It’s very, very different here. The pavement is different than anywhere we go. The bumps in the racetrack are way different than anywhere we go. I think both of those things kind of contribute to us needing to do some different things here to change-up the racing.”

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. defends Kyle Busch’s surly mood after the Coca-Cola 600

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CONCORD, N.C. – A second-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 left Kyle Busch in an irate mood, which is perfectly fine, according to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

A seemingly agitated Busch, cupping his face in his hands after sitting down, entered the media center at Charlotte Motor Speedway Center shortly after 12:30 a.m. Sunday. It was roughly 10 minutes after Austin Dillon scored the first victory of his career in NASCAR’s premier series by stretching his final tank of fuel for 70 laps.

Was Busch surprised that Dillon made the checkered flag? What did it mean for a driver to get his first win?

“I’m not surprised about anything,” Busch snapped. “Congratulations.”

He dropped the mic on the dais. There were no further questions. (The video is available above).

Shortly afterward on Twitter, Earnhardt took up for his peer (whom he replaced at Hendrick Motorsports in 2008).

Busch, who hasn’t won since last July at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (a span of 28 races) gave more elaborate answers shortly after exiting his No. 18 Toyota, which finished 0.835 seconds behind Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet.

He apparently didn’t realize until late in the race that his pass of Martin Truex Jr. (who led a race-high 233 laps) with a lap remaining was for second instead of the victory.

“This M&M’s Camry was awesome tonight,” Busch said. “It was just super fast. I mean we had one of the fastest cars all night long and then (Truex) was probably the fastest. There at the end, somehow we ran him down. You know he got a straightaway out on us, but there that last 100 laps we were able to get back to him and pass him so you know that was promising for us there at the end in order to get a second-place finish, but man just so, so disappointed.

“I don’t know. We ran our own race. We did what we needed to do and it wasn’t – it wasn’t the right game. We come up short and finish second.

“It’s a frustrating night, man. There’s nothing we could’ve done different.”

Others took a different view of Busch’s tirade.

But some agreed with Earnhardt’s stance.

After defending Busch, Earnhardt also poked some fun at him later Monday, too.

 

Martin Truex Jr. takes Cup points lead after Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte

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CONCORD, N.C. — Martin Truex Jr. took over the Cup points lead with a third-place finish in Saturday’s Coca-Cola 600.

The Furniture Row Racing driver, who led a race-high 233 laps, also extended his lead in the playoff standings by winning the second stage and bringing his total to 16 points.

Kyle Larson, who had led the standings for eight consecutive races since Phoenix International Raceway, fell to second in the rankings after crashing and finishing a season-worst 33rd. Larson trails Truex by five points in the race for the regular-season championship (and 15 playoff points).

Click here for the points standings after Charlotte.

Results, stats for the 58th annual Coca-Cola 600

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With a fuel gamble, Austin Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 for his first NASCAR Cup win.

It comes in his 133rd start and is the second win for Richard Childress Racing this year.

Following him was Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.

Click here for the full results.