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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NASCAR America: Paul Menard, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. among winners, losers at Kentucky

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On Monday’s NASCAR America, Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton discussed the winners and losers among drivers in Saturday’s Cup race at Kentucky Speedway.

Letarte singled out Ricky Stenhouse Jr. as one of the losers after he failed to overtake Alex Bowman in the playoff standings. Bowman entered the race as the last driver above the cutoff line for the 16 driver field in the playoffs.

Bowman earned his first DNF after he crashed from a flat tire and finished last.

Meanwhile, Stenhouse finished 26th, one lap down after he had to pit twice early in Stage 1, the first time for a cut tire. He is now nine points behind Bowman for the final playoff spot.

“To only gain 10 points on a driver who finished last in the field is a huge missed opportunity,” Letarte said. “When you look at drivers scoring 30, 40, 50 points each, Paul Menard picked up over 30. So the chance was there to gain (on) that bigger group and he just didn’t do it. So when I look at what Ricky Stenhouse did, he really missed probably 15 or 20 points. I know it was a flat tire, there’s always a reason. But in the end you have to make the playoffs, you have to go out there and take it from Alex Bowman, who has put him in that position.”

Burton picked Menard as a winner. The Wood Brothers Racing driver placed 11th Saturday after finishing fifth in Stage 1 and 10th in Stage 2.

He is now 18th in the standings, 23 points back from Bowman

“They performed well, got good stage finishes and did what they needed to do,” Burton said. “This team is starting to get a little bit better every single week. I find it very interesting that back there for that 16th spot it’s really a fight of mediocrity, to be honest with you, and who is going to not mess up.”

Watch the above video for more.

Erik Jones, Martin Truex Jr. benefitting from surviving Daytona

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It took until July, but it seems Erik Jones has finally found his footing at Joe Gibbs Racing.

And the 22-year-old driver is somewhat keeping pace with one of the members of the “Big Three.”

Thanks to them surviving the carnage at Daytona, Jones – who won the race – and Martin Truex Jr. are the only Cup drives enjoying active streaks of top-10 finishes.

With Truex’s win and Jones’ seventh-place finish on Saturday at Kentucky Speedway, they each have four consecutive top 10s.

The streaks began with the June 24 race at Sonoma, which Truex also won.

Jones’ Kentucky finish came after he radioed his team multiple times during the race about his concerns that his engine might blow up.

Jones needs two more top 10s to match his streak of six last season during his rookie campaign at Furniture Row Racing. That streak started at the July race at Pocono and ended with the regular-season finale at Richmond.

Here’s a look at the best top 10 streaks this season among drivers with nine or more top 10s (Jones and Ryan Blaney have nine).

Kyle Busch (15 top 10s) – Steaks of eight and six consecutive top 10s; current streak: one top 10

Kevin Harvick (15 top 10s) – Streaks of three, seven and four top 10s; current streak: one top 10

Joey Logano (14 top 10s)  – Streaks of three, six and two top 10s; Currents streak: one top 10

Martin Truex Jr. (13 top 10s) – Steaks of five and four (twice) top 10s; Current streak: four top 10s

Kyle Larson (11 tops 10s) – Streaks of four and two (twice) top 10s; Current streak: one top 10

Brad Keselowski (11 top 10s) – Steaks of three and two (twice) top 10s; Current streak: one top 10

Clint Bowyer (10 top 10s) – Streaks of four and three top 10s; Current streak: none

Kurt Busch (10 top 10s) – Streaks of four and two top 10s; Current streak: one top 10

Denny Hamlin (10 top 10s) – Streaks of three and two (three times) top 10; Current streak: none

Erik Jones (nine top 10s) – Streaks of four and three tops 10s; Current streak: four top 10s

Ryan Blaney (nine top 10s) – Streaks of three and two tops 10s; Current streak: one top 10.

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NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Kentucky recap, Fantasy standings

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and recaps the storylines from the weekend’s racing at Kentucky Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Steve Letarte from Stamford, Connecticut. Jeff Burton joins them from Burton’s Garage.

On today’s show:

  • We take a look back at Martin Truex Jr.’s dominant performance on Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway. Is Truex better now than in his 2017 championship season? Our experts weigh in.
  • We’ll also hear from Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, who both expressed frustration following top-five performances on Saturday. We’ll examine the ongoing competition between NASCAR’s Big Three with just seven races remaining until the playoffs.
  • Speaking of the playoffs, we’ll check in on the Bubble Boys. Paul Menard had a huge night points-wise, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. drew even closer to Alex Bowman, who currently holds the final playoff spot.
  • We’ll take a look at Christopher Bell’s winning performance in Friday’s Xfinity Series race. Plus, we’ll find out who the big winners were among the NBC broadcasters in NASCAR Fantasy.
If can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Martin Truex Jr: ‘I still pinch myself’ three years into dominance with Furniture Row

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As Martin Truex Jr. stood in the back of a truck riding around Kentucky Speedway before last Saturday’s Cup race, a fan called out to the 2017 champion.

“Let somebody else win!” he yelled.

After a beat, Truex responded with a chuckle, “No!”

Truex stayed true to his word. A few hours later, the Furniture Row Racing driver took the checkered flag to claim his fourth win of the season.

His triumph over Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski took his career win total to 19 – tying him on the all-time wins list with Joey Logano, 2019 Hall of Fame inductee Davey Allison, Greg Biffle, Hall of Famer Buddy Baker and Fonty Flock.

The victory is the 17th for the No. 78 team since 2015. Truex leads all drivers in wins since 2016 with 16.

For a driver who only won twice in his first nine full-time seasons, Truex said “I still pinch myself” over his dominance of the sport.

He doesn’t lead the series in wins after 19 races. That goes to Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who are tied at five wins each.

This marks the first time since 1974 that three drivers have won four or more races at this point in a season.

“I think all three of us have great teams,” Truex said after his win. “Those two guys are great drivers. Obviously, I have a lot of respect for them. It’s pretty amazing to be a part of this group, honestly. I think when I was a kid and you (saw) Dale (Earnhardt) and Rusty (Wallace) and guys like that, Terry Labonte and you had guys that just dominated and won everything, and watching them, it was like, ‘Man, that’s so cool, they’re heroes and they’re such a big deal,’ and to think that I’m one of those guys this year and I guess last year, too, is just ‑‑ it’s amazing to me.”

Even after he won his first Cup title last November, it didn’t occur to him until almost a month later that he will one day be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame alongside Earnhardt, Wallace and Labonte.

Truex joined Furniture Row Racing in 2014 after losing his ride at Michael Waltrip Racing, a casualty of the race manipulation scandal involving MWR in the 2013 regular season finale at Richmond Raceway.

That year, Truex went winless, led one lap and finished 24th in the standings.

The following season Truex was paired with rookie crew chief Cole Pearn. The duo won one race, earned eight top fives and made the Championship 4.

In their 126 races together, the duo has put together a record comparable to other great driver-crew chief parings in Cup history.

“Really the last three years have been just having the time of my life and just lucky to have great people around us, a great car owner (Barney Visser),” Truex said. “Just feel really lucky.  I’ve been on the other side of it before where teams were struggling and struggled to get in position to win races, and having a lot of things kind of going against you and kind of fighting that uphill battle.

“So it’s amazing to be on this side of it. I can’t tell you how proud I am of all the guys on our team and what they’ve done, and I honestly just enjoy every single one of these wins like it’s my first because you never know when they’re going to come to an end.  You never know when you’re going to have your last one. You never know what’s going to happen next. Just trying to ride the wave of momentum and enjoy it all, and my team is just so badass, I can’t even explain it.”

Truex, 38, “always felt” he “could get the job done” during the early years of his Cup career, spent with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and then MWR.

“I had enough glimpses of really good days or glimpses of greatness that I think it just kept me alive, kept me hungry enough to keep fighting for it,” said Truex, who won two Xfinity championships before moving to Cup. “I think through the years there was just ‑‑ for me personally, and I don’t know what everybody else thought, I know I had some people that probably didn’t think I was that good.

“That’s part of this deal.  You’re only as good as your last race. And if you’re not getting results now, people question your ability.  … For me personally, I always (felt) like I could be a good driver, be a great driver.  I never knew I’d get to where I was last year, and I never really knew I could go on a championship run and win (16) races in three years … That’s been amazing.”