HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- To the very end, Matt Kenseth called it the best season he'd ever had.
Even if he came up 19 points short of a championship.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver did almost all he could Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway to keep Jimmie Johnson from claiming a sixth championship in the Sprint Cup Series. He led the most laps in the finale, he battled Dale Earnhardt Jr. and eventual winner Denny Hamlin at the front, he squeezed everything out of his No. 20 car. In the end he finished second in the race and second in the final standings, with Johnson winning the title by 19 points.
For a driver who scored a career-best seven race wins in his first season with JGR, who was the No. 1 seed entering the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and led the standings for six of the playoff's first seven weeks, it could have been viewed as a crushing disappointment. But Kenseth said there won't be a time in the days or weeks to come that he'll harbor regrets over what slipped away.
"I won't have one of those moments," he said. "In the past I probably did that a lot, probably a little too much. Not really this time. I really will walk away from this year feeling like we all gave it everything there was to give. I think there's no way you're going to race for nine months, not make mistakes, not do something wrong, whatever. I mean, that's just the nature of the beast. You'll have that stuff happen.
"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. We lead the most laps, qualified the best, I think probably best average finish, most wins, all that stuff. From a competitive standpoint, it was our best year. The final 10, I didn't get more points than Jimmie. We still ran good the final 10. We didn't have any huge disasters. We just didn't run good enough to beat him."
Kenseth won the first two races in this Chase, but suffered a pair of slipups: a 20th-place result at Talladega when he got stuck in the wrong lane and couldn't make a move at the end, and a devastating 23rd-place finish last week at Phoenix that allowed Johnson to clinch the title Sunday by finishing 23rd or better. The car Kenseth drove in that race was a balky beast from the beginning, a stark contrast to the vehicle that led 144 laps in South Florida.
But Kenseth never really had the opportunity to make a move toward the title on Sunday. He entered Homestead 28 points down to Johnson, and immediately cut that gap to 16 due to the disparity in the two drivers' starting positions, and Kenseth leading the first lap. The only moment of real uncertainty came on a Lap 193 restart, when cars up front started slowly and Johnson bumped Kenseth as part of a chain-reaction collision that left the No. 48 car's left front fender bent in.
For a moment, Kenseth was in trouble, too. "I got off the gas not to wreck," he said. But initial concerns over a potential cut tire on the No. 48 proved unfounded, the crew pulled the fender away under the next caution period, and Johnson continued his march to another title.
"You never concede it to them until it's done," Kenseth said. "They just seem to be able to raise the bar. I haven't looked at the numbers, I haven't read anything the last six weeks, haven't watched anything, I don't really know. I don't know if the points total is more than ever. I don't know how close it is. I would think the 10 races we put together would have won a championship in some years past. They just seem to be able to raise the bar."
"If they don't have any kind of problem, they're capable of winning every week. If they don't win, they're going to run in the top five. Seems like you have to run in the top five every single week. I thought we put together a really good 10 weeks. You can look back, Talladega was a big dent in the points. Talladega is Talladega, you can't do anything by yourself. We had a bad finish last week. Those two chunks of points were probably the difference."
Hamlin can commiserate. Kenseth's teammate at JGR lost the 2010 championship to Johnson, despite the fact that it was the No. 11 team that took a slim lead into the final day. As was also the case with Kenseth's bid, it was a clutch finish at Phoenix that swung momentum in the No. 48 squad's favor.
"I think they do a great job of being consistent," Hamlin said. "Really, I'd say with everyone else in the Chase, you can almost count on them having one bad race. The 48, they just never have that one bad race. ... I don't know how to explain it, but they just don't make any mistakes. They don't have 20th or worse finishes that it seems like every one team has throughout the Chase, whether it be a superspeedway or whatever. You have to beat him on performance. To do that, that's really hard.
"Unfortunately, we're racing during the Jimmie Johnson era. We're just unlucky in that sense. I think being out there and racing with him, I can say that I think he's the best that there ever was. He's racing against competition that is tougher than this sport's ever seen. The guy's just good. So you just need some bad luck here and there. The championships that he didn't win is because he had some bad luck here and there, or maybe they beat themselves, something like that. Here lately, it just hasn't happened that way."
Indeed, the margin for error in this Chase was so small that Kenseth's poor finish at Phoenix left him needing a miracle at Homestead. "It really was a strong 10 weeks," Johnson said. "Last year we had eight great weeks, didn't come up with it. Matt had nine. You have to have 10 great weeks to be the champion, and we got it done this year."
And Kenseth had only admiration for a driver who is a friend as much as a competitor. "Jimmie and that team are obviously unbelievable," Kenseth said. "Never seen anything like this in the sport, and probably will never see anything like it again. It's amazing with as tight as the rules are, multi?car teams, information-sharing, and all that stuff. It's amazing they can figure out how to do that year after year."
JGR team president J.D. Gibbs said he jokingly calls Kenseth the organization's "old man driver," and that his experience aids his perspective. "He's won a championship. He knows what it's like to lose a championship. I think it's been real helpful," Gibbs said. And true to that nature, Kenseth's immediate focus wasn't on what he lost -- it was on all he had achieved.
"Overall," Kenseth said, "I don't think you could ask for much more."
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