BRISTOL, Tenn. – There were two delicious subplots crystallizing with 100 laps to go Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, but Matt Kenseth was focused on only one.
Yes, a win by Furniture Row Racing rookie Erik Jones would have locked up another playoff berth and tightened the screws on winless drivers on the points bubble such as Kenseth
But as he chased after Jones, who will take over Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing next season, the championship wasn’t on his mind.
“I didn’t really think about that,” Kenseth said after finishing fourth, adding with a laugh. “I was really more thinking about, ‘That’s my replacement, and I better run him down and pass him to show him I can still do it better than he can.’ I had those thoughts. But I wasn’t thinking anything about the playoffs, I was thinking about trying to win the race.
“It’s human nature. Whoever you’re catching for the lead, you’re always thinking something about them, right? Where you can sniff the victory, your mindset changes a little bit. It’s not just another car, it’s the leader, so you think things like that every once in a while. My brain’s a scary place.”
The motivational tactics didn’t quite work as Kenseth came up short. But so did Jones, who led a race-high 260 of 500 laps but was runner-up to Kyle Busch (who swept the week of NASCAR races at the 0.533-mile oval for the second time in his career).
Afterward, Jones and Kenseth (who doesn’t have a confirmed ride for 2018) sat side by side in the media center for a postrace interview session that could have been awkward but was surprisingly jovial.
Asked how he was able to use the bumper of his No. 77 Toyota respectfully in traffic, Jones received a playful nudge and whisper from a smiling Kenseth.
“I was asking Erik how you run into somebody respectfully,” he joked.
“I didn’t mean to hit Matt,” Jones replied.
“Did you hit me?”
“Didn’t remember,” Kenseth said with his typically Cheshire cat grin. “Shouldn’t have brought it up. Now I’m mad. You guys laugh, wait till we leave here. Takes my ride and runs into me!”
After the laughter subsided, Jones said the subplots weren’t on his mind, either, as he fended off Kenseth.
“When you’re out there, it’s just another car to pass,” Jones said. “At least I’d assume that’s how most people look at it. That’s how I look at it.
“Yeah, sure you get to some guy, you’re like, ‘That guy wrecked me last week,’ something like that. For the most part, as long as you don’t have a grudge with the guy, it’s just another competitor.”
Said Kenseth: “Honestly I would have liked to see Erik get the win. It would have been fine with me. I wasn’t really thinking about the playoffs. It would just have been another one of our cars with a win, put another JGR Furniture Row Toyota in the playoff grid.”
With two races remaining in the regular season, Kenseth’s chances still seem decent without a victory. Along with Chase Elliott and Jamie McMurray, Kenseth is among the three winless drivers who have a provisional playoff berth.
The trio is well ahead of the cutoff (Clint Bowyer is 58 points behind McMurray, who is three behind Kenseth and 11 behind Elliott), so provided there isn’t another first-time winner, it would take a collapse for them to be eliminated.
After what Kenseth called “the best day we’ve ever had” by the No. 20 pit crew, there is playoff optimism despite a winless streak that is at 13 months. Saturday marked his fourth top five in six races.
“I feel good about the next 12 (races),” Kenseth said. “When we’re at our best, we can run good at all those places.”