RELATED: 2013 recaps of every Chase driver
This is the 12th in a series of 2013 Sprint Cup Series driver recaps that will be featured on NASCAR.com
Matt Kenseth was virtually certain that he'd never have another chance to win a title again.
That was his mindset a year and a half ago at Roush Fenway Racing, where he was solid driver who contended for race victories, but didn't think he had the week-to-week speed necessary to threaten for the year-end crown. But suddenly circumstances intervened, and Roush's decision to promote two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. left no room for Kenseth, who departed for Joe Gibbs Racing and a No. 20 program that had experienced only moderate success under his predecessor, Joey Logano.
The result was a transformation, with Kenseth recording a career-best and series-high seven race victories, and the 2003 champion of NASCAR's premier circuit making his most serious title run in a decade. He wound up second, finishing 19 points behind Jimmie Johnson, but the entire experience was one he didn't even think possible just a short time earlier.
"Honestly, before we put this deal together a year and a half ago, I was 95 percent sure that I wasn't going to have that shot again," Kenseth said. "I don't mean this as any disrespect or anything like that, but I was almost 100 percent sure we were never going to be fast enough to beat somebody like the 48 (team of Johnson) every week to win one again. This year, we could have. I felt like on average all year, we could go toe-to-toe with anybody."
That much was evident over the course of a year that saw the 41-year-old take the top seed into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and hold onto it for six weeks of the playoff.
From the very beginning, it was clear Kenseth was going to a threat -- he was the class of the Daytona 500 field before his engine expired, he scored an early-season victory at Las Vegas, and he kept piling up race wins as the year went along. Prior to this season, Kenseth's personal record for race victories had been five, set way back in 2002. He matched that at Bristol in August, and then became the third driver to sweep the first two events of the Chase.
The move to JGR helped Kenseth show vast improvements at tracks like New Hampshire and Martinsville, where he had rarely contended in the past. It made him a beast on 1.5-milers, and did nothing to detract from his prowess on restrictor-plate venues. It put Kenseth in the thick of the title hunt until the very end -- he and Johnson were knotted at the top leaving Martinsville, three races from the finish, after which the six-time champion gradually pulled away.
"Before the year started, honestly my first goal was to win, and to win early. I thought that was really, really important. It was important for me personally, but I thought it was really important. We put this whole thing together and we looked at it on paper and it looked like it was going to work and all that, but how do you know until you get to the track? So it was important to get that first win under out belt, and it happened really early, which was great," Kenseth said.
"And of course your goal is really to win the championship every year, but we've ran better and won more races than anybody I think really expected. And really we were in position to win several more races. So yeah, when you're running that good, and you're inning races and you're leading the Chase the first five, six weeks and you don't win the championship, you're a little disappointed. You can't help not to be."
Even at the end, though, there was never bitterness -- just gratitude over a season no one had seen coming. "I really will walk away from this year feeling like we all gave it everything there was to give," he said after finishing second in the finale at Homestead. "? I think when you look at our season overall, when I talk about it being the best season of my career, we didn't come up with the championship. The championship is the ultimate goal, you always want that. But from a competitive standpoint, it's been by far the best season of my career."
Kenseth was even able to joke about his second-place points finish in a skit that was part of the Sprint Cup Awards Ceremony in Las Vegas. And yet, one thing still bugged him -- the penultimate race at Phoenix, where his setup was off from the beginning, and he faded to a 23rd-place finish that helped Johnson secure the title. He and crew chief Jason Ratcliff were at a loss as to what had caused Kenseth's worst finish of the season that didn't involve a crash or a failure.
Weeks later, he remained puzzled by that day in the desert. "I'm not over it," he said in Vegas. "Yeah, I do wonder why it went so bad a little bit, because there hasn't been any of that this year -- even when we've been off, gosh, we've could still run 12th or something. We didn't have a day like that. I think Jason has some answers in his head that he's pretty sure was the biggest problem, but I think we all need to be better there as a group. ? It's something we're still working on. I think we all have some ideas."
And yet, when taken in full, not even that one uncharacteristic stumble could detract from a career year, and the closest anyone's come to winning a title in a debut with a new team since Darrell Waltrip did it with Junior Johnson and Associates in 1981. No wonder then at Homestead, Kenseth sounded as if he didn't want the season to end.
"For me, when you're running good, you kind of don't want the season to end in a way," he said that night. "You want to keep going to the track." Given the success Kenseth enjoyed this past season, it was easy to see why.
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
SEASON IN REVIEW
- Dec. 11: Carl Edwards
- Dec. 12: Kasey Kahne
- Dec. 13: Ryan Newman
- Dec. 16: Kurt Busch
- Dec. 17: Greg Biffle
- Dec. 18: Joey Logano
- Dec. 19: Clint Bowyer
- Dec. 20: Jeff Gordon
- Dec. 23: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
- Dec. 26: Kyle Busch
- Dec. 27: Kevin Harvick
- Dec. 30: Matt Kenseth
- Jan. 2: Jimmie Johnson
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