Matt Kenseth discusses his surprising return: ‘I’m super excited’


If you had asked Matt Kenseth three weeks ago if he ever would race again?

“I probably would have told you no,” Kenseth told NBC Sports. “You just never know what life is going to throw at you.”

On Monday, it delivered one of the biggest stunners of the 2020 NASCAR season, which remains on hold because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

When it resumes (perhaps as early as the third week in May), Kenseth will be racing in NASCAR’s premier series for the first time since the 2018 season finale.

Chip Ganassi Racing announced the 2003 champion as the replacement for Kyle Larson in the No. 42 Chevrolet for the rest of the year. Team owner Chip Ganassi told that the deal so far is for the rest of the season.

MORE: Highlights of Matt Kenseth’s career 

After he didn’t get quite the send-off he’d wanted in 2017 with Joe Gibbs Racing and in a partial season return to Roush Fenway Racing in 2018, Kenseth, 48, said he’s “really, really excited about” his third chance at a fitting ending to his Hall of Fame career.

“I almost feel like when I started racing for some reason,” he told NBC Sports. “So I’m super excited about it. I’m ready to get to the track.

“Kyle is an extremely, extremely talented driver. Way more talent than I ever had, so I know I’m going to have to work really hard at this and give it 100 percent and hopefully we’ll get some results.”

During a phone interview Monday afternoon with NBC Sports, Kenseth discussed the reasons he’s returning, his expectations for performance and what he’s looking forward to the most about being back in a Cup car for the first time in 18 months.

Q: How did it all come together?

Kenseth: “(Chip Ganassi Racing executive) Max Jones called me a couple of times and talked about it a little bit. I wasn’t really thinking about it. It wasn’t really on my radar. I was just hanging out there kind of doing my thing. Being kind of stuck around the house the last couple of months and trying to figure out the schooling and do all that with all the kids really. Kind of going about our time and wasn’t even thinking about it.

“Then after Max called, we thought about it for two days, and I kind of called him back and said I was serious and to see what were they thinking. (Wife) Katie and I just talked about it a lot and looked at what the possible schedule might be. We could maybe get a lot of racing in a shorter period of time. Maybe not be gone from home quite as much as if it was a normal full schedule. So I think there was a lot of reasons and it was a unique opportunity. Unexpected. And it came at a good time for me. I was definitely ready to go do something.

“They have competitive cars, good equipment. I love working with Kurt. There’s just a lot of things about it that attracted me to it.”

Q: The schedule apparently might have a lot of races in driving distance and one-day shows. Did that make it more attractive to you spending less time on the road and more at home with family?

Kenseth: “I haven’t really seen much there. I’m just assuming every week that clicks by that we don’t run a race, I’m just assuming they’ll try to run more races per week in a shorter schedule until everything hopefully gets opened up again eventually. Maybe it won’t be like that, but I just assume there’ll be more racing in a shorter period of time. And a lot less to go with it, I would think, aside from the competition part.”

Q: What had you been doing during the past six weeks and prior to all of that, too?

Kenseth: “We went to Colorado skiing, which we always do over Presidents’ Day weekend. Went out there for a week, then we got home and went to school, and the kids were supposed to have spring break so we could go to Florida to visit (son) Ross and his family and my dad. We actually were getting ready to leave, and everything started getting worse, and stuff started getting somewhat locked down with travel advisories and all that. We decided to just stay home until everything cleared up, and I guess we’re still doing that.

“It’s not boring around here! There’s three of them we’re trying to do their schoolwork with them, and then Mallory is 2, so she’s just wide open all the time. So it’s been really fun. Katie’s been doing extremely well as teacher, housekeeper, cook and all that. I’m not a lot of help. I really try, but I’m not much help. So it’s been pretty busy.

“But the good part about all this for us, there’s a lot of bad things going on, but the good part for us is it’s been great family time. I think we’re all ready for it to open up and for our kids to be able to play sports again and see their friends and go do all that stuff, but it’s been quite a while now. It has been good family time. We’re a little past eight weeks we’ve all been together here, and the kids are doing really well.”

Q: How long do you want to continue driving? Would you drive beyond the 2020 season?

Kenseth: “I can’t tell you that for sure. If you’d have called me three weeks ago and said, ‘Do you think you’ll ever race again?’ I probably would have told you no. You just never know what life is going to throw at you. It was just honestly for a lot of different reasons. Just the right opportunity at the right time. I’m actually really, really excited about it. I almost feel like when I started racing for some reason. So I’m super excited about it. I’m ready to get to the track. There’s a lot of unknowns. So you never really know. Who knows? Things can just go way greater than you think, and they want to keep you around for a while, and you want to do it some more. Or maybe not. I just can’t really predict what’s going to happen. I hoping for the best, and I’ll work as hard as I can.

“Kyle is an extremely, extremely talented driver. Way more talent than I ever had, so I know I’m going to have to work really hard at this and give it 100 percent and hopefully we’ll get some results.”

Q: But you can win with this car?

Kenseth: “Yeah, I hope so. That’s the plan. It sure looks like it. It runs pretty well. Kurt’s won a race over the past year and been pretty competitive, so yeah. I feel like they’ve got fast cars. I’ve watched Chad (Johnston) for quite a while, and he’s a great crew chief. I feel like that will be a good fit.

“If I didn’t think I could go and be competitive and have things go right and have a shot maybe to win, if I didn’t think any of that, I just wouldn’t do it. For me, it was an opportunity to get in what I feel like is good equipment and go totally commit to the rest of the season, whatever that’s going to look like, and go try to get some results and try to get back to having that feeling of being competitive and having fun with the guys.”

Q: Kurt Busch, your new teammate, is a good friend of yours back to the Roush days. Have you talked to him?

Kenseth: “I talked to Kurt a few times on the phone. Just had a few discussions, just had some questions for him on some things, so yeah. That’s part of the allure as well. Kurt was a great teammate when he started at Roush. I’ve always said he’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot of really good teammates. Kurt as a teammate is always very unselfish. He always works really, really hard at it. Puts in the extra time. Asks the questions. Gives his input. Does all the things that you really appreciate as a teammate. So I know he’s going to help me a lot. Especially when I first get started here and hopefully get up to speed sooner than later. And hopefully once we get this thing rolling, I can reciprocate and help him as well. I am looking forward to that. It’s certainly a part of it.

Q: You said there were unknowns. Is the biggest unknown the lower horsepower, high downforce package that NASCAR switched to in Cup last year?

Kenseth: “It’s a whole different team. I’ve never worked with Chad before. I know there’ll be some challenges for him. Most people that work with me the first few times can’t understand me on the radio. Which is an issue. Sometimes got to have a translator, I feel like. (laughs). I know Tony Raines, I used to race with him a little bit and known him a long time, but I’ve never worked with him as a spotter. So I have to get used to that. And never being in those cars.

“I think the biggest challenge, especially (if) we don’t have practice to get going, not only is just the car and how it’s going to drive. Chad doesn’t necessarily know what I like compared to Kyle, our setups or whatever. Just making sure everything fits right, and you’re comfortable. Just to jump in without practice and not be in the car a year and a half and go out and run 400, 500 miles at a tougher track is a tall order. So we’ll have to spend some time to make sure we feel good about the driver comfort stuff and all that and spend as much time as we can together just talking together and looking at notes and data. I’ve never drove the low-power package so I need to look at data and work with Kurt as much as I can to understand it best I can before I get there.”

Q: When you went out in 2017, it didn’t end the way you wanted because of circumstances beyond your control. In 2018, you improved the No. 6 but didn’t quite run at the front as you’d hoped in the return to Roush Fenway Racing. Does this opportunity at Ganassi give you a chance to go out the way you’d like and to do it as a winner and championship contender?

Kenseth: “Yeah, I hope so. You can’t predict the future or change the past, but I hope so. All those situations were different. There wasn’t anything for me after ’17 at JGR and basically getting replaced by Erik (Jones). I was glad I went back and raced for Jack (Roush). I understood there was going to be some challenges there. I was going there understanding that and understanding most likely we weren’t going to be a contender for a win, especially if it was just going to be a part-time, one-year deal. I was going to help the organization some and maybe be part of it.

“So that was a different role. I’m still glad I did it in that role. Unless you can make a lot of headway, it’s probably not a role I wanted to be in again. So if this would have been something where (Ganassi) was in a rebuilding process or something like that, I don’t think that’s the challenge I’m looking for anymore. But since it’s an established team, and they’re very competitive, and through those circumstances that Kyle’s not there anymore, they have this really competitive team that just needs a driver in there. That was very appealing. You have to make things better, but I don’t feel like there’s something that needs to be rebuilt or is much of a project. I feel like they’re looking for me to come in and be competitive, and I’m going in there looking to get in cars that are capable of running toward the front and putting in solid efforts every week.”

Q: What are you looking forward to the most aside from racing and possibly winning again?

Kenseth: “The thing I miss the most about racing is the team members and the relationships that you build. Through the years, you have some team members you really enjoyed working with, and I really miss working with your crew chief and having that urgency with your engineers to try to figure out the next thing. Watching your car chief and mechanics try to get the next change in just in time to go out and see if it’s going to be better. I miss all that stuff. Just trying to be the best racing against the best drivers and teams every week.

“To be part of that group and try to be one of the links in the chain to have a competitive or winning effort, that’s the part I miss the most. I don’t necessarily miss the driving the most. All the stuff you’d think you’d miss, just going back and driving, that’s not really what I miss the most. I miss just being part of it. That’s my part of the bargain is just being part of that team and being part of something competitive and just trying to be great.”

Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to track

MORE: Dr. Diandra: 600 tests man more than machine

And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”







Dr. Diandra: Charlotte’s 600 miles test man more than machine


This weekend’s 600-mile outing at Charlotte Motor Speedway is NASCAR’s longest race. It’s the ultimate stock car challenge: not just making a car fast but making it fast for a long time.

Although 600 miles is nowhere near the 3,300-plus miles in the 24 Hours of LeMans, the pace is similar. Most of NASCAR’s 600-mile races run between four and five hours.

The 1960 World 600 set the record for this race, requiring five hours, 34 minutes, and six seconds to complete — and it had only eight cautions. The second longest race, the very next year, ran 12 minutes shorter than the previous year’s outing.

The longest race in the modern era (1972 to present) happened in 2005. That race took five hours, 13 minutes, and 52 seconds to complete and set a record for cautions with 22.

Last year’s event was the second-longest modern-era race. With four fewer cautions than 2005, the 2022 race took just 44 seconds less to complete.

The field for the 1960 race included 60 cars. Only 18 of those cars (30%) crossed the finish line.

NASCAR disqualified six drivers for making illegal entrances to pit road. The reasons for the remaining 36 DNFs reads like an inventory of car parts, from “A-frame” to “valve.”

The number of cars failing to finish the race decreased significantly over the years. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was not uncommon for 50-70% of the field to drop out of the race before its end. As the graph below shows, the DNF rate is now in the range of 10-30%.

A bar chart shows how DNFs have decreased over time and turned the the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

Last year — the first year of the Next Gen car — had an abnormally high 46% DNF rate. That doesn’t signify a problem with car reliability.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

Increased car reliability makes people more important

Racecar evolution has changed the nature of NASCAR’s longest race. The car have become so reliable that Charlotte’s 600-mile race is now more a test of drivers than their cars.

“All of the components in the car are pretty standard,” Chase Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “So you just want to make sure you have it all in good condition and dot all your I’s and cross your T’s.”

That wasn’t how it used to be. Kevin Harvick remembers that drivers used to be warned to take care of their equipment early so it would last until the end.

“The engine guys freak out because you have to go an extra 100 miles, but the parts and stuff on the car are a lot more durable than they used to be,” Harvick said. “Back in the day, it was ‘take care of the motor.’ ”

Drivers worry much less about their car’s engine today. The graph below shows how DNFs due to engine failure have decreased since NASCAR started running 600-mile races.

A bar chart shows that engine failures have gone from 50-70% to 10-30%, turning the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

In 1966, more than half the field lost an engine during the race. Only six cars have retired due to engine failure in the last five years.

While cars are more reliable, their drivers are still human. Crash-related DNFs (crashes, failure to beat the DVP clock and inability to meet maximum speed) show no clear trend over time.

A bar chart shows how the number of DNFs due to crashes doesn't show any overall trend with time

Typically, between five to 10% of the cars starting a race will fail to finish due to an accident rather than a mechanical failure. Last year’s race was an exception, setting a record for the largest fraction of the field taken out by crashes since the 600-miler began.

It’s only one data point as far as 600-mile races are concerned. It is, however, indicative of a trend observed since the Next Gen car debuted. The car is so sturdy that contact is no longer the deterrent it used to be.

Man versus machine

NASCAR’s only 600-mile outing has become an endurance race for humans. Drivers draw upon research in hydration, nutrition and fitness, hoping to create an advantage by preparation and conditioning.

“As a driver,” Daniel Suárez said, “your goal is to be as fresh at the end of the race as you are at the beginning. It isn’t about making it to the end of the race. It’s about being at your best at the end and taking advantage of other drivers who are tired.”

Harrison Burton, who ran his first 600-mile race last year, was surprised by how taxing that extra stage was.

“I figured it’s only 100 more miles than 500 and we do that fairly frequently and didn’t think it would be that different,” Burton said, “but for whatever reason when that fourth stage starts it’s definitely daunting.

Burton also noted that last year’s Coca-Cola 600 was the first time he got hungry during a race.

“It’s actually a really important race to have something to snack on in the car during the race,” Ross Chastain said. “I typically have some sort of protein bar that I can eat during a stage break just to try and keep my stamina up.”

The driver isn’t the only one whose mental acumen gets tested during the Coca-Cola 600. Crew chiefs and pit crews must work at peak form for a longer time.

“There’s more pit stops, there’s more restarts, there’s more strategy calls and there’s more laps,” Gustafson said. “There’s more everything.”

That means more opportunities to make mistakes or lose focus — or to take advantage of other drivers who do.

Alex Bowman confident as he returns to racing from back injury


CONCORD, N.C. — Alex Bowman watched the rain-filled skies over Charlotte Motor Speedway Saturday with more than a touch of disappointment.

As weather threatened to cancel Saturday night’s scheduled NASCAR Cup Series practice at the speedway, Bowman saw his chances to testing his car — and his body — dissolving in the raindrops. NASCAR ultimately cancelled practice and qualifying because of rain.

MORE: Wet weather cancels Charlotte Cup practice, qualifying

Bowman suffered a fractured vertebra in a sprint car accident last month and has missed three Cup races while he recovers. Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, the season’s longest race, is scheduled to mark his return to the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet.

“It would have been really nice to kickstart that with practice today,” Bowman said. “I haven’t raced or competitively driven a race car in a month. I’m trying to understand where my rusty areas are going to be and where I’m still good.”

Bowman ran 200 laps in a test season at North Wilkesboro Speedway this week, but, of course, that doesn’t compare with the faster speeds and tougher G-forces he’ll experience over 400 laps Sunday at CMS.

Bowman admitted that he is still experiencing pain from the back injury — his car flipped several times — and that he expects some pain during the race. But he said he is confident he’ll be OK and that the longer race distance won’t be an issue.

“I broke my back a month ago, and there’s definitely things that come along with that for a long time,” he said. “I have some discomfort here and there and there are things I do that don’t feel good. That’s just part of it. It’s stuff I’ll have to deal with. But, for the most part, I’m back to normal.

“I’m easing back into being in the gym. I’m trying to be smart with things. If I twist the wrong way, sometimes it hurts. In the race car at the end of a six-hour race, I’m probably not going to be the best.”

The sprint car crash interrupted what had been a fine seasonal start for Bowman. Although winless, he had three top fives and six top 10s in the first 10 races.

“I’m excited to be back,” Bowman said. “Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off and be strong right out of the gate.”

He said he hopes to return to short-track racing but not in the near future.

“Someday I want to get back in a sprint car or midget,” he said. “I felt like we were just getting rolling in a sprint car. That night we were pretty fast. Definitely a bummer there. That’s something I really want to conquer and be competitive at in the World of Outlaws or High Limits races. Somebody I’ll get back to that. It’s probably smart if I give my day job a little alone time for a bit.”




Charlotte NASCAR Cup Series starting lineup: Rain cancels qualifying


CONCORD, N.C. — William Byron and Kevin Harvick will start Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the front row after wet weather cancelled Saturday night qualifying.

Rain pelted the CMS area much of the day Saturday, and NASCAR announced at 3:45 p.m. that Cup practice and qualifying, scheduled for Saturday night, had been cancelled.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to cockpit

The starting field was set by the NASCAR rulebook.

Following Byron and Harvick in the starting top 10 will be Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The elimination of the practice session was particularly problematic for Alex Bowman, scheduled to return to racing Sunday after missing three weeks with a back injury, and Jimmie Johnson, who will be starting only his third race this year. Johnson will start 37th — last in the field.

Charlotte Cup starting lineup