AVONDALE, Arizona — Maybe it was fate. How else to explain how everything came together Sunday at Phoenix Raceway for Matt Kenseth.
A season that saw him lose at New Hampshire on a pit call, suffer damage at Richmond because of a wayward ambulance and be eliminated from title contention at Kansas because his team sent one too many members to repair his car, now includes the end of a 51-race winless streak that, in a way, harkens to his Cup debut.
Kenseth made his first Cup start in Sept. 1998 at Dover, driving for Bill Elliott, who missed that race because of his father’s death.
Sunday, Kenseth passed Elliott’s son to win his 39th and likely final Cup race.
“It’s pretty neat,’’ Kenseth told NBC Sports of the symmetry. “The (1998) race itself was really fun and through that I got to know Bill and talk to him quite a bit.
“This makes me sound old, but I remember (when) Chase was just a little kid who would come with Bill all the time. Chase is a great driver and obviously is going to win tons of races. Sometimes you have a lot of those seconds before you bust through. You (then) see them just catch fire and win a ton of races.
“He’s a super-respectful, hard-working kid. I’ve always enjoyed seeing him around. It’s been fun racing against him. The only bad part is he’s really good, so he’s hard to beat. Other than that, it’s enjoyable.’’
While an Elliott was involved in Kenseth’s win, it also was fitting how Kenseth won. Overshadowed by others, he worked his way into the top five and maneuvered into position to strike. He moved into the lead on Lap 232 with the help of his pit crew and led 62 of the final 81 laps.
“It was classic Matt Kenseth,’’ crew chief Jason Ratcliff told NBC Sports. “We’ve seen him do that a number of times where you get down to the end of the race and he’s just hanging out and making sure he’s close. He gets passed with just a few laps to go and is able to get back on the leader’s bumper and make it happen, that’s one of the things he does best. I think that’s what most people in the sport will remember about Matt Kenseth. He’ll just kind of stalk you and close the deal.’’
Elliott lamented afterward on the radio to his team: “Sorry, I was trying freaking everything I knew to try. I’ll get it right some day.”
The 45-year-old Kenseth says he still believes he can win consistently but he won’t be able to prove it in Cup after this weekend’s season finale in Miami because he has no ride. With Erik Jones moving to Joe Gibbs Racing, there was no room there. Other teams went with other options. Kenseth, a former champion without any sponsorship to bring to a team, was left out despite his success and the likelihood that he’ll be a first ballot Hall of Famer when his time comes.
If nothing else, Kenseth will step away having won in one of his final starts and experiencing the thrill — and tears — of victory one more time.
“I cry all the time,’’ Kenseth told NBC Sports. “I try not to where anybody can see me. But I guess in general I’m somewhat of an emotional person.
“It’s been the longest year of my career by far. I can’t tell you what a long year it’s been. Honestly, the last four or five weeks, I’ve probably been, instead of enjoying it, knowing it’s my last four or five weeks, I’ve just sort of been like wanting to get through it, to be honest with you. I’ve been putting in all the work … and racing as hard as I can, but it hasn’t really been as enjoyable as maybe I hoped it would, so it feels good to get the result. It feels good to have one work out for us.’’
The only thing missing was his family, who didn’t make the trip.
“I would have gave about anything for them to be here today and experience this with him,’’ Kenseth said of his wife and children. “I was able to FaceTime in victory lane. That was a really neat moment.’’
At least his connection worked better than earlier in the day. Daughter Kaylin, who is 8 years old, competed in her first gymnastics meet Sunday. Kenseth had trouble trying to keep up with her meet.
“She was all nervous,’’ he said. “I was trying to get on that app, I kept trying to text (wife) Katie and try to find out what was going on and how she did. She did pretty good. She finished second in one of the events. She was pretty excited. I hated that I missed it. I’m looking forward to see more of that in person for sure.’’
If that is how Kenseth spends his weekends next year, he enjoyed one last hurrah Sunday and gave fans one last memory.