Folks who use the words "lame" or "duck" in any sentences around the driver of crew of the No. 17 Ford team these days better be prepared to duck themselves.
But who really knew? Who knew driver Matt Kenseth and the rest of that team would come out swinging so hard in this Chase for the Sprint Cup -- when Kenseth announced months ago that he was leaving the Roush Fenway Racing organization at the end of the season?
Kenseth knew, that's who. And crew chief Jimmy Fennig, plus RFR director of competition Robbie Reiser, all of whom have long bristled at the notion that the No. 17 group would be any less fiery and competitive and focused down the stretch of their final season together.
It's only human nature for those looking on from the outside to assume otherwise, of course. With Kenseth set to depart at season's end for a new professional life at Joe Gibbs Racing, where he will be driving a Toyota, there were plenty of those who wondered aloud if the driver would fizzle toward the end of his run in an RFR Ford.
Would he be looking ahead? Would the team be thinking of next season, when up-and-coming star Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will replace Kenseth in the car? Would RFR direct more of its resources toward the championship hopes of Greg Biffle, Kenseth's current but soon-to-be ex-teammate who also is in the Chase?
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Instead, Kenseth is closing the books on his 14-year run with the organization in proper style. His win on Sunday in the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway was typical -- solid if not spectacular. It also was his second win in six Chase races and came after he hit the wall and feared that his day was done.
"I thought it was over when I got in the fence," Kenseth said.
Not over until ...
Of course it's never over until Jimmy Fennig says it's over. The veteran crew chief had his driver come to pit road and downplayed the damage to the car.
After Kenseth hit the wall trying to avoid the cars of Aric Almirola and Mark Martin that were wrecking in front of him, Fennig directed emergency repairs in the pits and Kenseth ended up getting on a favorable pit cycle that was out of sequence with the other contenders. Plus Fennig kept trying to tell his driver that the damage to the car wasn't that bad -- as crew chiefs will sometimes do.
"I was watching those guys and trying to make sure I didn't hit them and I flat-sided it pretty bad," Kenseth said of trying to avoid Almirola and Martin. "It ended up working in our favor. They fixed the body as good as it was when we started and we had to take less gas in that last pit stop and this pit crew put me out front."
Asked what Fennig was telling him over the team radio, Kenseth grinned and added: "He didn't say it, but he was probably thinking I should stop whining about it. He said it was fine. I knew I hit it really hard but thought it was centered up in the door real good and we had a similar thing happen at Homestead last year. As soon as we got the fender back where it was supposed to be, it was fine. I was happy as hard as I hit it that my steering wheel was still in the right place."
That's the thing about Kenseth leaving RFR. It always seemed it was the precisely the right place for him to be. It's where he started his climb in NASCAR and it's where many assumed he would finish his driving career -- especially after team co-owner Jack Roush called him "a cornerstone" of the organization and said early in the ultimately failed contract negotiations that Kenseth could say with RFR as long as he wanted.
Going out in style
It took Kenseth months to officially announce he was going to JGR, although Roush pretty much spilled the story when Roush confirmed that, in his opinion, Kenseth "was going over to the dark side."
That's the thing with Kenseth, however. Nothing he does appears to be impulsive. In life, as in the microcosm of a single race such as the one just run in Kansas, he's calculating and careful and complete in his assessment of a situation.
He's also determined, professional and patient. That's why no matter what his situation for the future, no one should be surprised that he's been exactly all of that in the present.
His chances of winning a championship were dashed quickly with finishes of 18th, 14th and 35th in the first three Chase races. Those results had critics who thought Kenseth and/or his team might have lost focus because of his situation nodding their heads in affirmation of their misguided beliefs.
But then he won at Talladega, and now he's done it again. It was the third overall win of the season and the 24th win of Kenseth's career, tying him for 26th on the all-time list.
"It's not something I've really put any thought into, but I will say you never know when or if your next win is," Kenseth said. "Like I always am, especially as you get older, you really appreciate it more. I'm really thankful and humble honestly. It's just a pleasure to drive that stuff. We still have some races left we want to win. I just think it says a lot about these guys sitting here [Roush and Fennig], Robbie, everybody else [on the team and at the RFR shop], how hard they work to give me the best stuff and give me a chance to win every week."
As a result, Kenseth is going out at RFR in style and with his head held high. The only ones surprised are those who never should have doubted it in the first place.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
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