Jason Ratcliff

Long: Matt Kenseth relishes poetic, timely victory

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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.

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Long: Kyle Larson’s playoff exit significant to title contenders

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Lost among questions about rules, confusion on pit road and chaos on the track Sunday was just how significant Kyle Larson’s departure from the playoff is.

The owner of four wins this season, Larson was one of the few drivers who typically could race with Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch on the 1.5-mile tracks and some even considered Larson the championship favorite if he made it to Miami.

“I think Kyle Larson was going to be the car to beat, and still will be the car to beat at Homestead,’’ said Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch. “Now that he’s not in the (playoff) mix anymore, it probably opens it up for the rest of us.’’

Said Kevin Harvick: “I think you eliminated the best car at Homestead. That’s a big deal. For everybody.’’

Larson entered Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway with a 29-point cushion before his title hopes ended when his engine blew with nearly 200 laps left. He finished 39th.

“It’s crazy,’’ Cole Pearn, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., said of Larson’s playoff exit. “You can’t ever be safe, for sure.’’

Sunday marked the first time since 2013 that Larson failed to finish a race because of an engine failure. His first two career Cup races ended early because of engine issues that season.

Larson’s departure was as shocking as Busch’s exit in 2014 when he entered the elimination race at Talladega second in the standings with a 25-point cushion to advance to the next round.

Now a spot many presumed would be taken by Larson is open for someone else.

WORK REMAINS

Jimmie Johnson overcame two spins to finish 11th and advance to the Round of 8, moving a step closer to an eighth championship.

Crew chief Chad Knaus, though, wasn’t pleased after Sunday’s race.

On the radio afterward, Knaus said: “That was a pitiful performance.’’

Knaus had more to say after the race, telling NBC Sports:

“We ran like (expletive deleted). It was a bad weekend. We managed to capitalize on some other people’s misfortune, which was great for us. We’ve got some work to do. I don’t know what’s going on. We definitely don’t have the speed that we need.

“Good news is we’ve got three really good race tracks coming up for us, at least historically. Very optimistic heading into Martinsville and going to Homestead this week to test, so hopefully we can hit on some stuff there to take to Texas. We obviously have run well there in the past. Phoenix has been a really good race track for us as well. We’ve got three great opportunities. Just got to do the best.’’

Knaus is right to be concerned. The second round was mistake-riddled for the team.

The pit crew failed to tighten all the lug nuts late in the race at Charlotte, forcing Johnson to back up partially into his stall to remedy the issue, costing him time and positions.

An error by the team’s spotter led to the crew working on Johnson’s damaged car before the red flag period had ended, leading to the team being parked. The team had hoped to run one more lap after being collected in a crash to gain at least one more point.

Then came Kansas’ woes with the lack of speed, an ill-handling car and a seven-time champion causing back-to-back cautions.

“It’s no real surprise that mile-and-a-halves have been a little bit of a struggle for us this year,’’ Johnson said. “We’re putting in the effort. These guys are working around the clock. I’m looking under every stone I can to try to find something as well. We just don’t have the speed yet.

“We’ve got a real opportunity at Martinsville. If we’re able to win there … it sets us up for Homestead.’’

COMMUNICATION WOES

The communication issues Matt Kenseth’s team had Sunday wasn’t the first time for that team and crew chief Jason Ratcliff in the playoffs.

In the penultimate race of the 2013 season, Kenseth struggled all weekend and then had a disastrous pit stop when there was confusion on if the team would change two or four tires. After the call was made for four tires, Kenseth had to back up because the car was on the air hose.

The result was a 23rd-place finish that left Kenseth so far behind Johnson needed only to finish 23rd or better in Miami to win the title. Ratcliff apologized to his crew on the radio after the race for the effort.

Sunday’s scenario was different but communication again proved key and a miscue will keep the team from having a chance to race for a title.

“That’s one thing about that pit stall (closest to pit entrance), makes it difficult,’’ Ratcliff said. “You get to pit road really quick. You have a little less time to communicate. Thankfully, we don’t fall under the damaged vehicle policy that much. Other than last week at Talladega we did. We missed a head count there.’’

So what happened?

“Two of them were holding tires (over the wall),’’ Ratcliff said of crew members. “We have a gameplan. We have a gameplan that has worked really good for us all year and … I don’t know if someone missed the call there or I didn’t communicate properly. Typically, it boils down to communication and that’s what happened there.’’

When Kenseth was told on the radio that he was being parked for having too many crew members work on his car while under the five-minute clock for crash damage, the former champion sounded incredulous that his — last? — chance to win a title ended in such a way.

With no plans announced for next year, there’s no guarantee Kenseth will be racing for a championship again. Now the goal becomes a win.

“We’ve had some great runs at Martinsville and there would be nothing greater than going there and finally getting that win with Matt,’’ Ratcliff said. “That would be special. Would it make up for not having a shot at Homestead? No, but it would be sweet to have that happen with just a few races to go in the season.’’

PIT STOPS

The final eight Cup playoff contenders include four former champions — Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. There has been a first-time champion in three of the last five years, which could be a good sign for playoff drivers Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. … With winning the pole at Kansas, Truex Jr.’s team earned the first pick of pit stalls also at Martinsville this weekend because qualifying is on the same day as the race there.

NASCAR explains why only Martin Truex Jr. was penalized on restart

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — A NASCAR executive said that series officials clarified a rule on starts and restarts after drivers came to them with concerns before Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway.

The result was Richard Buck, managing director of the Cup Series, telling competitors in the drivers meeting: “A reminder to stay in your lane until you cross the start-finish line. The front row establishes the lanes and the inside lane must be established above the inside painted line.’’

Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn admitted they missed the directions in the meeting. Truex was penalized on a restart when he went below the white line. Kevin Harvick followed Truex below the white line but was not penalized.

Steve O’Donnell, executive vice president and chief racing development officer for NASCAR, explained the rule Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio and why Truex was penalized and Harvick wasn’t.

“We had some discussions early on with some of the competitors on Sunday morning about the fact that not necessarily just the inside lane, but if the inside car dropped below the white line it would force, potentially, the outside row or one of the drivers in the outside row to change lanes and the fear of being penalized,’’ O’Donnell said.

“We were asked to see if we could clarify that. That was why the language was put in place in the drivers meeting. Clearly communicated by Richard (Buck) to stay above the while line. It was really the first row of drivers that set that line so anyone who is following them was going to be put in a tough position because they had to stay in line, so that was why the penalty was called on (Truex) and not the drivers that dropped below behind (Truex).’’

Harvick, who said he didn’t realize he went below the white line following Truex on the restart, said Buck’s order stood out to him.

“I’ve been to a lot of drivers meetings, and I listen and watch it every week, and when you hear something different, it sticks out like a sore thumb,’’ Harvick said. “When I heard them say that you have to establish a lane above the white line, that was new to me. Usually it’s you can’t beat the leader on the original start and all the normal stuff. That was different. I’ve never heard that before.’’

O’Donnell also addressed the penalty that ended Matt Kenseth’s race.

After suffering crash damage, Kenseth was on the five-minute clock for repairs. Section 10.9.9.h of the Cup Rule Book states: “In addition to the five-minute time limit described above, six or fewer crew members are permitted in the vehicle’s assigned pit box for repairs to a damaged vehicle. An additional person (i.e. seventh crew member) is only permitted to service the driver and clean the windshield. If a vehicle exceeds the crew member limit, the vehicle will not be scored or permitted to return to the Race.’’

O’Donnell explained on “The Morning Drive” the situation with Kenseth’s team.

“It’s one of those that obviously we hate to have to make that call, but it is an established rule,’’ O’Donnell said. “It’s one that we worked with all the race teams at the beginning of the year to put in place. The reason for it was if we didn’t put some parameters around it, I think the industry collectively knew you would have potentially 30 or 40 people over the wall, especially around a championship scenario where a car had to get back in. That was the situation we wanted to avoid and why the rule was put in place. In this case, we try to give everybody the benefit of the doubt. It was unfortunate that seven were identified working on the car and that’s an automatic end of the race for a driver unfortunately.’’

Jason Ratcliff, Kenseth’s crew chief, stated what happened:

“That’s one thing about that pit stall (closest to pit entrance), makes it difficult,’’ he said. “You get to pit road really quick. You have a little less time to communicate. Thankfully we don’t fall under the damaged vehicle policy that much. Other than last week at Talladega we did. We missed a head count there.

“Two of (the crew members) were holding tires (but were over the wall). We have a gameplan. We have a gameplan that has worked really good for us all year and … I don’t know if someone missed the call there or I didn’t communicate properly. Typically it boils down to communication and that’s what happened there.’’

But Ratcliff said it might be time to look at changing the penalty on that rule.

“It’s a shame that that’s a rule that takes competitors out of an opportunity for a championship,’’ he said Sunday. “I think it’s one rule that needed to be implemented this year as far as damage vehicle policy, but I think it really needs some restructuring and some work now that its been in place. I don’t think it’s doing what they intended it for it to do. I think today is a perfect example of that.’’

Will NASCAR possibly change this rule for next season?

“We always look after the end of the season, we look at what happened and different rules,’’ O’Donnell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “In this case, Scott Miller (senior vice president of competition), I think, personally had conversations with all the teams that were still a part of the championship again reminding everyone every race that this is part of it and don’t put yourself in that position. We get the frustration. You wouldn’t be a competitor if you weren’t frustrated in this situation.

“Certainly something we can look at, but I think it was a rule that was established by the industry so we look at that collectively.’’

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NASCAR issues lug nut penalties to two teams

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In addition to the penalties to Chase Elliott and the No. 24 team issued by NASCAR on Tuesday, two other penalties were assessed from this past weekend’s action at Chicagoland Speedway.

In the Cup Series, Jason Ratcliff, crew chief of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team (driver: Matt Kenseth), was fined $10,000 for an unsecured lug nut.

In the Xfinity Series, Jonathon Hanson, crew chief of the No. 98 Biagi DenBeste Racing (driver: Darrell Wallace Jr.), was fined $5,000 for an unsecured lug nut.

NASCAR also announced the indefinite suspension of Gilbert Garcia for violating Sections 12.1; 19, which covers behavior (substance abuse policy). It was not announced which team or which series Garcia is affiliated with.

Matt Kenseth apologizes to team for runner-up finish

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Matt Kenseth, battling to remain playoff eligible, apologized to his team after Martin Truex Jr. held him off to win Sunday’s Cup race at Watkins Glen International.

“Sorry,’’ Kenseth told his team on the radio. “I freaking sucked. I should have went a little harder. Sorry. (Truex) missed Turn 6, and I still couldn’t pass him. I’m sorry.’’

Crew chief Jason Ratcliff responded: “You did real good. We were on the button (on fuel) there.’’

Kenseth said: “I saved so much (fuel) early in that run. I should have ran harder. You don’t get many of those opportunities. Damn it. I wish I would have gotten a little closer getting into (Turn) 7, but I just couldn’t get there because of my brakes.’’

A victory would have assured Kenseth a spot in the playoffs in what could be his final Cup season. Erik Jones will replace Kenseth, whose contract expires after this year, at Joe Gibbs Racing. The 2003 Cup champion has not said what his plans are for next year.

The runner-up finish leaves Kenseth in the last playoff spot with five races left. Kenseth stretched his lead on Clint Bowyer, the first driver outside a playoff spot. Kenseth leads Bowyer by 28 points heading into next weekend’s race at Michigan.

Kenseth and many others made their final pit stop on Lap 53 of Sunday’s 90-lap race. At the time, nobody could make it to the end without saving fuel. Kenseth restarted eighth. He moved into the top five by Lap 64. He found himself second in the final laps as cars in front pitted for fuel.

Kenseth was told he didn’t have to save fuel on the last lap and pressured Truex but couldn’t get by, having to settle for his best finish of the year.

Asked if he was happy or disappointed after the race, Kenseth, winless in the last 39 Cup races said: “I’m the second happiest. Martin is the happiest. We really needed the win. Honestly, I don’t even think about the playoffs. I more think about coming here for however many, 15, 17, 18 years, whatever it has been, and not really having a win or an opportunity to win and never even really been that great here.

“Felt like we had a top-five car. Obviously, we had good fortune there at the end with our track position and fuel mileage and all that to stay in it and have a shot at it. Man, when it’s that close, and you see him saving and you’re saving and you go after him on the last lap, it’s disappointing not to get it, especially when I saw him miss Turn 6.’’

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