Matt Kenseth: ‘That’s the most competitive we’ve been at an intermediate track all season’

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FORT WORTH, Texas – A day after announcing he plans to step away from the Cup Series after the 2017 season, Matt Kenseth showed again Sunday why he isn’t ready to do so.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver led 29 laps and finished fourth in the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, rebounding from starting 35th after being unable to post a qualifying lap because of Friday inspection failures.

It was the most laps led by Kenseth since the Sept. 9 race at Richmond International Raceway and his first top five since a third in the Sept. 24 race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

“I felt like that’s the most competitive we’ve been at an intermediate track all season,” Kenseth said after his first top five at Texas in four years. “If we would have had our best setup at the end, we could have had a shot at winning the thing. It certainly was encouraging we ran better.”

During a taping of the NASCAR on NBC podcast Saturday, Kenseth revealed he would be taking an indefinite hiatus from NASCAR’s premier series because he didn’t have any current offers to drive a first-class ride.

He also lamented his team’s struggles in 2017, which he called “the most disappointing season I’ve ever had in my career for having equipment that is capable of winning races and championships … I got to take a lot of the blame because I’m the guy driving the race car, but it’s been so self-inflicted. We’ve made so many mistakes as a team.”

Sunday was mostly flawless until the end, though. Kenseth drove through the field early in the race on new tires (with the competition that made qualifying runs on tires that were scuffed Friday).

He gained 28 spots in 85 laps to finish seventh in the first stage, and crew chief Jason Ratcliff made a shrewd strategy call — pitting the No. 20 Toyota from the lead with 20 laps left in the second stage and taking the lead when the rest of the field stopped at the caution ending the stage.

Kenseth spent the next three restarts battling for the lead with runner-up Martin Truex Jr., who led a race-high 107 laps. He won one of those battles by seizing the lead from Truex on the inside, which is impressive given that Truex’s No. 78 has been the strongest car on 1.5-mile tracks this year.

“I thought we did everything right,” Kenseth said. “I thought we had good pit stops.”

Everything was good until after the final stop. Kenseth restarted fifth but couldn’t gain any ground.

“We just got really tight on that last set of tires,” he said. “I don’t know why, if it was just the track cooled down, and we didn’t realize it would change on us. We just got really tight on that last set, and I was just kind of stuck.”

But there still was something positive to take into Phoenix International Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway — possibly the last two races of Kenseth’s Cup career and certainly his last at Joe Gibbs Racing

“That was our worst run of the day, and it was still pretty competitive,” Kenseth said. “So it was nice to be competitive.”